It was a good day. The best of days. Belle tilted her head up toward the sun for an instant longer before heading into Granny’s. She still had a few minutes to spare, and on such a brilliant day as this, what could be better than stopping in to say hello to her friends?
“Hey, Belle!” Ruby waved her over to the counter with a wide smile. “You look happy. And dressed up. What’s the occasion?”
The warmth of the sun was still flush against her cheeks. Or at least, that’s what Belle told herself in order to pretend she wasn’t blushing. “I’m not that dressed up.”
“No, you are,” Ariel said, bounding over to join them. “Isn’t that the dress you bought a few weeks back for—how did you put it?—a ‘special occasion.’”
Ruby laughed and nudged Belle. “Come on, what’s going on? The library got that extra funding you wanted, you said the Mayor’s stopped bothering you, your dad hasn’t forced you to visit him for a while—sounds like all you’re missing is a new guy in your life.”
Ariel gasped, and Belle began to wish that she hadn’t come to see them. Not today when she wanted to focus only on one specific person. “Belle!” Ariel blurted. “Do you have a date?” Squealing, she clapped her hands and tugged at Belle’s sleeve.
“Seriously?” Ruby straightened. “And you didn’t tell us? We’d have come over and helped you with your hair or something.”
“Not that you need it,” Ariel interjected. “You look beautiful.”
“Yeah. So come on, who’s the lucky guy? Someone we know?” Ruby rolled her eyes, a flash of unhappiness peeking out between her quick glance toward Granny in the kitchen. “Not that there’s anyone we wouldn’t.”
“Who? Tell us!”
Belle bit her lip as she looked between her two best friends. She told them everything. She did. Well…most of the time, she did. There was only one thing she’d been keeping to herself. One tiny facet of her life that seemed too fragile, too wrapped up in hope and unspoken dreams, to ever put into words. He was her secret, her own personal mystery, unwrapped a layer at a time over the past two years, ever since he’d first come into the library to check in on his ‘investment,’ as he put it. And then he’d looked so surprised when she laughed at his sly menace, and smiled back at her when she took his hand to pull him forward—“If it’s that important to you, you get the guided tour,” she’d said.
She’d tried to tell Ruby about that first day. With her stomach in knots and her chest so light she’d felt as if she might float away, with her mind awash with the intrigue he’d sparked in her, she’d meant to ask Ruby about him. But no sooner had she said his name than Ruby had shuddered and warned her to stay well away from him. “He’s a monster, Belle,” Ruby had said seriously. “Like, literally, that’s his name around here: the Beast.”
And for whatever reason—because she was new and just making friends and didn’t want to rock the boat; or maybe just because the man she’d seen had sounded so different and it’d made her selfishly certain that she’d been granted something special and private and didn’t want to share it with anyone—Belle had closed her mouth over her confession. She’d kept quiet when he’d come to the library the next week for a book, and the week after that, and every week after, a standing appointment that was the main reason Belle never called in sick on Thursdays, never let anything get in the way of the Tuesday evenings when he’d occasionally drop by to browse for ‘a little something extra to get me through the interminable council meetings.’
She’d just so happened to always find something else to talk about whenever Ruby or Ariel brought up relationships or guys, and though she’d think long and hard about the few times a month she stopped by his shop—“just to look and see if there’s something I want to make an ‘investment’ in,” she teased him—she never said anything about it to her friends.
But now…today…now, maybe it was time.
“All right,” she said in a low voice. A whisper, actually, all trembling and giddy, the air she was able to pull into her lungs buzzing and looping with her excitement. “I’m going for lunch with someone. But,” she said over Ruby and Ariel’s loud reactions, “it’s just a first date. Although…we’ve been meeting for a while now.”
“How long?” Ruby demanded.
“Two years,” Belle admitted after a slight pause.
“We’ve been…talking. Every week, sometimes two or three times. And I’ve always hoped, but…I wasn’t sure I was good enough for him. And I thought maybe it’d never happen, that he was happy being friends. Only, Thursday he…” Belle bit her lip but couldn’t keep her smile back. “He finally asked me to lunch.”
“Aww, that’s so sweet!” Ariel pulled Belle into an exuberant hug. “I’m so happy for you!”
“Who is this guy?” Ruby asked. “I can’t believe you’ve been seeing someone for years and we’re only just now hearing about it.”
“Well, he’s…he’s kind of private. And like I said, I wasn’t sure if it’d ever go anywhere.”
“What’s his name?” Ruby demanded, refusing to be distracted.
Belle took in a deep breath. It was a good day, she reminded herself. The best day, and nothing could ruin it.
Mr. Gold. Just his name made her heart leap to her throat. She could practically feel the way his hand had trembled under hers when she’d stepped so close to him two nights ago. She could still hear the way he’d said her name—“Aww, Belle,” he’d whispered in the wake of a sigh, as if he’d been keeping in her name forever, longing to be able to let it out—could still see the line of his throat above his tie as he’d swallowed so hard before saying, “It’s supposed to be exceptionally nice weather for March this weekend. Maybe…maybe we could share a picnic?”
Belle felt the heat of the sun flush through her cheeks once more and had to clasp her hands on the counter to keep them from trembling. Or maybe just to keep herself from spinning in an elated whirl.
Abruptly, she realized that her friends were being quiet. Too quiet.
Looking up, she found them both staring at her. Ariel just looked surprised, but Ruby looked aghast. And behind them, apparently having come up to pay for their lunch, Mary Margaret was gaping at her while Emma’s eyebrows were arched almost to her hairline.
More than anything in the world, Belle wished she could rewind the past ten minutes, walk past Granny’s, and show up at the pawnshop a bit early. Even if it would have betrayed her eagerness, she could have snooped through his wares, asked for stories about whatever caught her interest, luxuriated in the sound of his soft voice and the feel of his eyes on her, always dropping away whenever she’d look back to catch him.
Too late now.
“Mr. Gold?!” Ruby finally managed to get out. “You’re going on a date with Mr. Gold? The pawnbroker? The landlord? The—”
“Yes,” Belle said before Ruby could call him anything else. Suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, she was filled with defiance. “Mr. Gold is taking me on a picnic. I can’t wait, and in fact, I don’t want to be late, so I should probably get going.”
Ruby hurried around the counter, Mary Margaret and Emma and Ariel all swooping in around her until they had Belle surrounded in a protective huddle. Belle tried not to feel too intimidated, but she felt very small and very young and very alone, standing there at the center of attention. No wonder Mr. Gold always avoided her aside from brief nods of greeting whenever they ran into each other out on the street.
“I don’t think you should go,” Ruby said, eyes narrowed, expression fierce and protective.
“You can’t go,” Mary Margaret added.
“Yeah, look, I don’t think this is any of our business,” Emma tried to say, but Ariel reached out to take Belle’s hand.
“You want to go?” she asked.
“Yes!” Belle tugged her hand free and tried to step back. They moved with her. She could only imagine what they looked like from anyone else’s perspective, a pack of young women all looking as intense and worried as if planning to take down some unsuspecting prey. “I’ve been hoping he’d ask for years now!”
“Belle,” Emma said slowly, “you’ve heard the stories about him, right? I mean, they’re not all exaggerated. He’s kind of dangerous.”
“Kind of?” Mary Margaret repeated disbelievingly. “He was arrested for beating up a guy who tried to steal from him. He tried to take Ashley’s baby from her. He—”
“He’s kind to me,” Belle said, her teeth clenching, hands balling up. “He’s always kind to me. And he makes me laugh. And he—”
“Belle,” Ruby said urgently, “he’s going to hurt you. Even if he’s really interested in you like…” Her face twisted into an expression of disgust before it settled back into her friendly worry. “Like that. It doesn’t matter. He’s controlling and manipulative, and if he’s able to beat a man twice his size almost to death, just think of what he could do to you.”
“Just don’t go,” Mary Margaret said. “You don’t want to get in that kind of situation. Even if he’s nice to begin with, you know they don’t stay that way for long.”
“Yeah, two years,” Emma said musingly. “If he’s been making you keep just some conversations a secret for that long, there’s no way he’s going to be happy knowing we all know about him preying on you for dates. We can—”
“Stop! Belle actually put her hands over her ears, so eager to get them to stop talking that she felt overwhelmed. “He’s not like that! I know who he is, okay, and he would never hurt me! You’re talking like he’s some kind of…of…wife-beater…but that’s not him at all. I know he can be ruthless and manipulative and even violent, but you don’t understand. He’s smart and he’s al—“ Belle bit her tongue to keep the rest of the words inside.
She hadn’t been lying when she said he was private. He was her secret, and she thought part of the reason he’d kept coming to see her and letting her come to see him was because she’d never told anyone else about him. The funding for the library, the threat that kept the Mayor away, the reason Belle hadn’t been feeling guilty enough to try yet again with her stubborn father, those reasons she had to be happy were all because of him. Mr. Gold was hers, everything he let her see, the glimpses behind his mask, the sharp humor, the rare moments of vulnerability, the favors he did her without ever asking for anything in return—they didn’t belong to these women, even if they were her friends.
“You don’t understand,” she said again. “And I am going on a date with him. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
“Belle,” Ruby caught her arm. “I’m just…I’m really worried about you. I don’t think this is a good idea. Abusive relationships aren’t something to mess around with—”
“He’s not abusive!” Belle snapped. She tore free of her hold, shoved past Mary Margaret and Emma, and slammed through the door.
The sun was still shining. Bright clouds drifted carelessly across the sapphire blue sky, one caressing past the sun’s face and casting just a bit of shade from the sparkling brilliance. A beautiful day, perfect for a picnic, indicative of spring finally arrived. A good day. The best day.
Taking in a quick breath, Belle blinked back tears and tried not to wrap her arms around herself. She didn’t want Mr. Gold to see her looking anything but happy, excited, everything a proper date should be.
She whirled to find that Ariel had followed her outside. “I can’t listen to this right now,” she said, turning to hurry away.
“I just wanted to say that I hope you have a good time.”
Blinking, Belle looked back at Ariel. Her friend gave her a warm smile, as pleasant as the sunlight.
“Really,” she said. “You looked so happy when you first came in. If he makes you feel that way, then don’t listen to what anyone else says. And what you said about not thinking you’re good enough for him? Don’t think that. You’re amazing, and he never would have asked you out if he didn’t see that.”
“Thanks, Ariel.” Impulsively, Belle hugged Ariel, all red curls and shell necklace and earrings and the scent of the ocean. Ruby had been her first friend upon moving here, but Ariel was the one who’d always accepted her, the only one who’d never looked at Belle as if she were odd. “I’ll see you and Eric later?”
“Of course. We wouldn’t miss Book Club night. Monday, right?”
“And I’ll expect details about today,” Ariel said, then she laughed and slipped away like seaweed flashing through sunlit water.
Belle stood tall, felt the day once more turn radiant and fizzing with potential as she turned to hurry toward Mr. Gold’s shop. A good day, she thought again. A day she’d been waiting for almost two years now. Not that she regretted the time in between. Those first weeks, when Mr. Gold came in so sternly, so quietly, asked for books as if he were testing her, took each book she handed him as warily as if expected a weapon, they were the foundation of everything that came later. The first time he’d offered her the ghost of a real smile, so much more breathtaking than his customary smirks. Their conversations that drifted from books they’d both read to recommendations they traded back and forth, from her past in Australia to his business of the day, from his singular, quiet admission that he had a son he was trying to reconcile with to her longings to see the world. Every conversation, every look, every smile and brush of their hands another brick in the bridge they built between them.
And of course, just two months before, when a strange man had come into the library, looked all around as if looking for something, then given her a double-take when she introduced herself. “You’re Belle?” he’d asked. “Belle the librarian?”
“That’s me,” she’d laughed. “And you are? I haven’t seen you before so I know you don’t have a library card yet.”
Something in his face had softened then, making her feel as if maybe she knew him. “Yeah,” he’d said. “I’d better get one of those. Sounds like I’m going to be visiting here a lot more often.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“Oh, no reason.” His eyes had sparked with mischief, and Belle’s breath caught in her throat as she realized why he seemed strangely familiar. “Just…my dad’s mentioned this place. More than once. He told me how great the Storybrooke librarian was.”
Belle had stared, finding more familiarity in the amber colored eyes, the fall of his hair, the smirk playing at his mouth. “Baelfire?” she’d whispered, and he’d laughed, a deep laugh so warm and pleasant she’d longed, suddenly and desperately, to make Mr. Gold laugh in the same way.
“I can see he talked about me too,” Baelfire had said, and then he’d signed up for a library card and nodded at her in what she dared to hope was approval.
Belle didn’t think it was any coincidence that Mr. Gold had smiled more at her after that, or that he’d come by a couple extra times, that he’d been more open when she stopped by his shop, that he’d finally scraped together the courage he needed to ask her out.
No. Every step in their relationship was perfect and theirs. But for all that, Belle would be lying if she said she wasn’t happy they’d finally reached this point. The point where she opened the door to the tinkling of bells and he looked up at her. The point where she could smile so unabashedly warmly at him, where his eyes widened when he saw her and he didn’t feel the need to immediately look away. The point where he said, “Hey,” as if it was the only word he could remember and she bridged the gap between them without hesitating to put her hand over his.
“Hey,” she said back. “It’s a beautiful day, just as you predicted.”
“Yeah.” As soon as she took her hand away, he blinked and seemed to find his words again, his smile as glittering as the slyness in his eyes. “It wouldn’t have dared to be anything else.”
Belle laughed. “The deal-maker strikes again? I’d hate to know how many favors you cashed in for a bit of sunlight this early in the year.”
“This is worth every favor ever owed me,” he murmured. Belle wasn’t entirely certain she’d been meant to hear the admission, but it warmed her all the way through and made dandelion seeds dance in her belly.
How could Ruby and Emma and Mary Margaret possibly think that he’d ever hurt her? How could they not see the cracks at the edges of his mask, the gaping scars where his battered heart showed through the seams of his armor? As soon as he came around the counter, Belle looped her hand along his elbow, felt the way he froze and then trembled at the contact, the weight of him as he leaned, ever so slightly, against her, and knew that the only thing she had to worry about was him realizing she wasn’t anything near as special as he seemed to think.
“So, a picnic?”
“Yes, the basket’s already in the car. I thought we could head up to the well in the woods. Have you been there?”
“No.” Belle breathed in deep of the smell of metal and spice and wool, savored the honey warmth of his eyes. “But I can’t wait to see it with you.”
He stared at her, caught by something in her voice or touch—Belle wished she knew exactly what so she could make sure to always replicate it—and his free hand actually fluttered up. One fingertip brushed—ever so gently, like the plink of a single raindrop—against her cheek. “Belle,” he murmured. As if he couldn’t help but say her name.
“I’m so glad you asked me out,” she confessed in a rush. He was revealing so much through every look, every touch, that she felt as if she needed to give him something in return. Needed him to know that he wasn’t alone in this.
For just an instant, his masks shattered. For just an instant, like a curse vanishing to show the true man beneath, she saw his heart laid bare and beautiful before her. Only an instant and then he was smirking at her, all sly armor and mischievous distraction and humorous flourishes to distract from what she’d already memorized and hidden away deep in her heart. “Of course you’re glad,” he said, “I told you I’d bring a new book for you to look over.”
Belle giggled and let her head rest briefly against his shoulder. “Yes,” she teased, “that’s the only reason I dressed up and did my hair and came out on a Saturday—for the book.”
“A better bet than roses,” he said, a quip but the truth, too. Belle didn’t think anyone in the world knew her better than he knew her.
“I’ll never say no to roses,” she said, “but books are the key to my heart.”
That was the truth too, and surely he knew it. After all, he’d given her a library and here she was, at his side with her heart given into his steady hands for safekeeping.
And even before they could leave his shop for their date, Belle knew this was already the best date she’d ever been on—the best day she’d ever had.
Gold could hardly believe this day was real. From the beginning, when he’d wondered yet again if he were dreaming, if Belle had really agreed to go on a date with him, to the morning in his shop when Bae had actually—for the first time—called him just to talk, to wish him luck on his date. From the moment Belle had walked into his shop, looking so beautiful it was almost painful, to the instant she’d looped her hand through his arm as if they’d been walking together for years. From her awed exclamation when she’d seen the picturesque well with its plaque and the legend he recounted for her to the way she’d so easily sat at his side without a flicker of pity for the slow way he had to lower himself to the ground.
Every moment of it had been surreal. So beautiful it was like a fantasy, so fantastical it was like a picture of everything he wanted rather than he actually had. He’d been afraid to breathe too hard, speak too loud, move too quickly, lest he jolt himself back to the reality he was used to. The one where everyone feared him, most hated him, no one cared about him, Bae was a far-distant dream that would never be his again, and if there was a librarian, she’d never give him a second look, let alone invite him back for new books, scintillating conversation, unabashed giggles, and flirtatious touches.
But it was real. All of it was real.
Including the mud on the ground that the recent sunlight hadn’t had a chance to dry out. The sharp drops along the winding footpath up toward the Nostos Well. The limp that kept him from ever being fit and hale once more and the cowardice as much a part of him as his DNA that kept him from looking back too closely at Belle lest she turn out to be a delusion.
The way she tripped was real. Her quiet cry was real enough to still echo in his ears. And the too-slow way he’d turned, the cane that tangled in his hand and kept him from being able to reach out and steady her on her tottering heels…that was far too real too.
Realest of all—and this he didn’t even have to question because he knew better, didn’t he, he knew better than to ever think he could keep anything good—was the sight of her falling down the steep incline, skidding through a few branches, and landing with a cry of pain at the bottom of the slope.
“Belle! Belle!” Gold forsook dignity in favor of sitting down and using his cane to help him skid down the hill. He didn’t think about how he’d be able to get back up, let alone get her up with him; all he could concentrate on was the sight of Belle slowly sitting up with a dazed look on her face.
Then he was there. “Belle! Belle, sweetheart, are you all right?”
She blinked at him as he tilted her face toward him, brushing away leaves and mud and a twig, to see a abrasion along her right temple. A spot of blood far too shiny and sickening. And strange as it was, that was what finally convinced him that all of this was real. He was awake. This was neither dream nor nightmare, and there were no redos, no take-backs, no fixing this.
“I’m okay,” she said slowly, and then, with only a movement as if she were trying to turn to him, she suddenly cried out.
“Oh, it’s my ankle, I think.” Shuddering and whimpering, Belle hid her face as she tried to wipe her tears away on her ripped sleeve, and something in Gold’s chest contracted so tightly he felt a sharp pinch behind his breastbone.
A lot of good he was. A lame, stuttering coward with little medical training. About the only thing he knew to mend were toddler scrapes and bruises—his face actually burned to think of bestowing the kisses he’d once given Bae as remedy and distraction—and tending to his own mangled ankle. Gold’s stomach lurching sickeningly before he looked down and saw Belle’s bare foot and ankle. Bruised, already swelling, but no bone poking through skin, no messy blood and torn muscles and bitter regret.
“I guess the heels weren’t the best idea for a picnic in the woods, huh?” Belle said, and though her voice shook, Gold couldn’t help but admire her bravery.
“They were beautiful,” was all he could think to say. Pitiful, really, but she pretended to laugh for his sake
At her nod of permission, he tentatively prodded a bit at the joint. He couldn’t stand to do much more, not when she whimpered at his least touch. She’d never flinched away from him before. She’d never betrayed so much as the slightest hint of unease to be in his presence, and Gold couldn’t bear to let that change, so he let his hands fall away from her ankle.
When he looked up at her, he saw her staring back at him, her eyes wide and unfocused.
“Belle?” He brushed his hand over the bump on her temple again, disturbed at her silence. “Belle? How’s your head?”
“Um…” If he didn’t know better, he’d think she leaned into his touch. More likely, she was dizzy and unbalanced. “It hurts. I don’t want to alarm you, but you are looking a little blurry.”
She might not have wanted to alarm him, but that was exactly what jolted through him, sending lightning down every one of his veins, rolling thunder down into his heart.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m going to call 911.”
“I’m sorry,” she said in a very small voice. She wasn’t looking at him anymore, her eyes locked on her hands clasped so neatly in her lap, as if she weren’t sporting a concussion and what was hopefully no more than a sprained ankle.
“No matter.” Using the excuse of the phone-call, Gold gave her a bit of breathing room. He did his best to sound calm and controlled for Belle’s sake, but fear was like his shadow, hovering over him, looming closer, and he ended up snapping irritably before hanging up the phone with a decisive click.
He immediately regretted it when he looked over at Belle and saw her sitting hunched in on herself. “Belle? Stay with me, okay? You still awake?”
“Yes,” she whispered to her knees. A moment later, she was moving, trying to pull herself up. Gold didn’t even think before he was at her side, his arm wrapped around her, her weight against him, all sweet curves and the scent of roses and paper.
“I don’t think you should move,” he said. “The paramedics will be here soon, but I don’t want to jar your ankle.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“That’s what I thought,” he said with a touch of wryness and a gesture to his cane.
“What?” Her brow furrowed as she looked up at him. Gold was so happy she was looking at him again that he didn’t stop to censor his words—to remember that the truth did nothing but drive away the ones he loved.
“I thought breaking my ankle would be an easy way to dodge the military,” he said, taking advantage of her distraction to settle her more comfortably against a tree. “I’d enlisted on my own, but then I found out I was going to have a son, and I…I couldn’t stand to leave him alone. I didn’t want him to not know me. So…” Already regretting this, he made a halfhearted gesture back to his ankle. “Only, it didn’t get better. Apparently, self-inflicted wounds are pretty hard to set. And turns out women don’t really like being married to cowards.”
“You did it to yourself.” Belle’s voice was dreamy, drifting, as if she didn’t really care. And why should she? This was old history. It had all happened before she’d even been born. “For your son.”
“That’s what I told myself,” he muttered.
Her head lolled back against the trunk of the tree. Even mud-spattered and rumpled, she looked more enchanting than anything he’d ever seen. “You do hurt people,” she mused.
Gold’s heart stopped in his chest.
“Because you hurt yourself.” Belle’s eyes, usually so insightful, so clear and pure and brilliant—so intelligent and cutting that he’d been unable to look away from her the very first time he saw her, come to intimidate the only person in town who didn’t owe him anything and finding himself captivated instead—were now dull, slipping closed as she turned her face away from him. “They said…”
“What?” he rasped when he could bear her silence no longer. “What did they say?”
He could probably tell her. He’d heard it all before. The monster with a heart made of stone and bottom lines. The beast who’d steal your children and take your clothes from off your back, who’d rip all your belongings away and crush your spirit on his way out the door. He could tell her more, too—the incompetent husband Milah had known, the spineless failure Cora had left without a second look, the weeping child his father had resented from the moment he took his first breath. Or worst, the father who’d let go of his son when it mattered most, who’d let him be taken away by Milah and her criminal lover, who’d stayed so far away that he hadn’t even known when Bae was abandoned on the streets, left behind for adventure and wealth, left to fend for himself and make his own way in the world for years before Gold had found him.
He’d heard it all and knew the truth of it, so he didn’t think anything she’d been told could hurt him.
“You hurt me,” Belle slurred. “If you could beat a man almost to death, of course you’d hurt me. And now I’m hurt. They’ll say…” She took in a shuddering breath. “They were right.”
He was wrong. It hurt. It hurt a lot.
Gold’s hand, half-raised to brush her hair away from her face, was frozen. Arrested in the air as if he’d been turned to stone. He wished he had.
“Mr. Gold.” Belle’s lashes fluttered against her cheeks, her body slumping back against the tree as she sighed. “I’m sorry. I thought…I thought I could change… I should have known better.”
“Belle,” he breathed out. But he couldn’t touch her. He wouldn’t.
She was right. All he ever did was hurt people. From his father to Milah, Cora to Regina, and of course, the proof he could never escape: Bae. His own son, and he’d left him just as abandoned as Malcolm had left him, had inflicted on him the same fate—but Bae didn’t deserve it. Bae deserved everything good and right and wonderful, but even at his best, all Gold could give his son were a few phone-calls and a couple visits a year. Or maybe that was all Bae could bear to take from him before he’d be hurt all over again.
The sound of sirens penetrated the chilling silence that had fallen over the woods. Gold made sure to keep a foot of distance between himself and Belle as he struggled to his feet. The last thing he needed was to loom over her and scare her worse. She was so vulnerable right now—his fault, his own hubris thinking he could impress her out here in the middle of nowhere with no one else around to compare him to—and in pain. The least he could do was not oppress her any further.
“It’s all right, Belle,” Gold said. Something tore inside him as he realized this was probably the last time he’d get to say her name. The last time he’d be alone with her. “They’re here to help you.”
Knights come to rescue the damsel from the beast, Gold thought as he watched the paramedics pour down the hill toward them.
“Gold,” Belle murmured. He wasn’t sure she was even conscious anymore, but that almost made it worse, knowing that he was haunting her nightmares as he’d stalked her waking moments. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault,” he assured her, hoping she could hear him. Hoping the words would sink through into her heart so she’d know that she wasn’t to blame.
How could anyone blame her? She was brave and kind, courageous and compassionate, and that was a dangerous combination. She’d felt sorry for him and thought she could change him into a man instead of a beast. It was more effort than anyone else had ever made for him, and it was hardly her fault that he was irredeemable. Even when he tried his hardest, when he did everything he could to tuck away the darkest parts of himself, he was still tripped up by his own flaws—the limp he’d inflicted on himself, the cowardice he couldn’t escape no matter how much power he amassed or fear he inspired.
Gold faded back to let the paramedics surround Belle. He suffered the indignity of letting one of them help him up the slope—if no word of that aid circulated through town, the man might find a slight rent reduction in his future—and made his solitary way to his car. For a moment, he hesitated, but in the end, he followed the ambulance to the hospital. He wouldn’t inflict his poison on Belle anymore, of course, but the least he could do was to cover the medical expenses he’d caused.
“How is she?” he demanded as soon as Whale finally made it out to talk to him.
“The ankle’s just sprained,” Whale said quickly, “but she does have a slight concussion. We’ll need to keep her here overnight for observation, but she should be fine in a day or two.”
Gold’s own ankle twanged as he purposely leaned more weight against it, a price in pain to ensure Belle never had to suffer the same thing. “Make sure she has everything she needs. I’ve taken care of the paperwork already.”
“Gold.” Whale narrowed his eyes as he weighed what he was about to ask. “What were you two doing out there?”
Of course. Storybrooke was a small town and thrived nearly as much on gossip as it did on summer tourism. Well, he’d already hurt Belle physically; the least he could do was try to mitigate the damage to her reputation.
“A business negotiation,” he said smoothly. “I’d hoped to make a profit off the library, but Miss French wasn’t amenable to the idea.”
“Ah.” A brief flicker of distaste crossed Whale’s features. No doubt the story would be all over town in no more than an hour or two. It didn’t do Belle any favors to know she’d gone out there alone with him, but at least she’d be spared everyone knowing that he’d dared to look at her as a woman rather than a deal profit. “Well, then—”
“It’s none of your concern,” Gold cut him off. He didn’t want to be here anymore. Like any self-respecting dragon, he needed to retreat to his lair, curl up and lick his wounds and try to pretend this day away.
He kept his face impassive while he drove back to his house. Not home, not really, not yet and how pitiful was he to have entertained fantasies of it one day becoming such with Belle there to fill it up with books he’d never read and Bae visiting on the occasional weekends?
His breath strained in his throat, but he couldn’t break down yet. Not until he was safe behind walls and locked doors and closed curtains. He parked the Cadillac with all his usual care, tried not to noticeably wince when he set weight on his overstrained ankle, and climbed the stairs to the front door. Just a moment more and then he could let loose the maelstrom of grief and regret and residual fear. Just a moment more before he could remember the penniless spinner he’d once been, derided and scorned but not alone, not with his little boy at his side. Before. Before he’d let go of that boy and lost the last bit of good inside him.
It barely registered to him that the door was unlocked until he looked up—ready to lift his cane and inflict as much violence on his surroundings as surged inside of him—and saw Bae standing in his living room.
As if he’d imagined him into being—it’d hardly be the first time—Bae smiled widely like he was happy to see him. Like he’d come all the way from Boston just to see him and not the woman and son he was trying to win back.
“Bae.” The word slipped from his mouth like a talisman. The sparks of violence tingling at his fingertips died. The maelstrom roaring within his heart flickered and went out, buried beneath a mountain of resolve built up over decades. Never. Never never never would he hurt his beautiful boy again. And he’d promised Bae he was trying to be better, promised that he was becoming a better man.
He thought he had been. He’d kept close the secret of Belle and his new fledgling dreams for them, and he’d imagined a day where he could be a man Bae could be proud of.
All gone now.
This couldn’t be real, Gold thought yet again. He hoped it wasn’t. Maybe he’d been so frightened by Belle’s startling acceptance of his invitation that he was imagining the worst that could happen. Maybe he’d wake, any minute, in a cold empty bed and breathe heavily and take a drink, then get up for the day and dress so carefully and wait breathlessly for Belle to show up at his shop, beautiful and kind and smiling at him.
“So,” Bae’s smile turned mischievous, “how’d the big day go? A picnic, right? You didn’t take her to the cabin, did you?” He faltered, his eyes raking over Gold’s mussed suit, rumpled hair, stained skin. “Okay, don’t give me too much information here, but exactly how well did this date in the woods go?”
Gold’s hand clenched spasmodically around the head of his cane. Any other day, he’d luxuriate in the fact that Bae was here, come of his own free will, there to support his father—there to make sure Gold was still turning into a good man with Belle’s help, not backsliding on his own—so excited to share the day with him.
Any other day.
Not this day.
The smell of the scotch hit as soon as he uncorked the bottle, and he almost didn’t even take the time to splash a mouthful into a cup before gulping it down. It did nothing to make the day reset.
“Papa?” Bae asked quietly.
“It’s hopeless,” he told Bae. His son deserved the truth, after all. No point in wasting time waiting for Gold to become anything other than what he already was—a man Bae, or rather, Neal Cassidy, had made clear he didn’t want in his or his son’s life. “I should have known better.”
“What happened?” Tentatively, Bae came closer, one slow step at a time, and what did it say about their relationship that Gold felt each of those steps like an earthquake? “I thought…after all this time, I thought this was kind of a sure thing.”
Gold scoffed and poured out another glass, drank it down, let it burn against the tears building up at the back of his throat. “You know me, Bae—better than anyone. Certainly well enough not to bet on me.”
Bae’s hand, warm and solid and real, kept Gold from pouring any more liqueur. “What happened? Maybe it’s not as bad as you’re thinking. You know you like to jump to the worst-case scenario—”
“I hurt her.” Stumbling back, Gold pulled his hand from the touch of grace he didn’t deserve, crumpled down into a chair, and covered his face with his hands as his cane fell to the floor with a loud clatter. “She’s in the hospital right now and it’s all my fault.”
“Papa.” His voice sounded so close, wonderfully close, but Gold didn’t dare drop his hands to see. Any time he ever tried to hope for anything, it always blew up his face. Just for a moment, he wanted to linger in the delusion. “You wouldn’t hurt her. I know that, okay? All those times you called and we’d talk, you’d barely string two words together about your own life—until Belle. Then she was all you talked about. I know…I know how you feel about her.” Even before Gold could fully tense, Bae’s hand was already clasping his shoulder, and Gold couldn’t help but look then. Bae was there, kneeling at his feet, so earnest and sincere. “You’d never hurt her. So what really happened?”
“She fell. It was muddy. I never should have taken her out there, what was I thinking—”
“I was too slow to catch her. Too lame to get her out. She hurt her ankle and bumped her head bad enough she has to stay in the hospital for a day or two.”
“Okay.” Bae shuffled a bit closer. “Maybe not breaking any records for best first date ever, but…you know, it’s a funny story to tell in a few years.”
“Oh, Bae.” Those years in the past, the years Gold could never forget, never entirely let go of, suddenly seemed so close. Himself lame and alone and unloved save for his boy, right at his side, eager to help, always seeing the best in him. And a woman, absent, seeing the truth of Gold in a way his son didn’t.
A blessing. And even with all his hopes dashed, his tentative dreams broken, he couldn’t help but be fiercely grateful for this moment.
“Papa, Belle seems like a really understanding person. There’s no way she’s going to blame you for an accident.”
“She said I hurt her.”
Gold suddenly felt stifled, claustrophobic. He wanted his son close, wanted him there always, but he wasn’t used to it. Tense and uneasy, he struggled to his feet and leaned on the chair, a bit of distance between him and someone else’s eyes. Judging, weighing, finding flaws and lacks and sins.
“She’s right. People warned her about me and they were right to. She was only there because she thought she could change me, but you know, Bae, you know better than anyone, I hurt whatever I touch.”
“Papa,” Bae said, voice so calm, so wise, so naïve. “You love her.”
“Yes,” he admitted, a truth wrenched from deep inside his stubborn, hopeful heart. “But that’s worse. My love is a poison.”
“Hey!” Bae got in his way, an obstacle between him and the scotch he so hoped would give him a few moments of oblivion. “What are you talking about? So it didn’t all go according to plan, so what? You can try again.
“Why?” Gold asked him blankly. “So I can fail again? So she can end up hurt worse? She told me, Bae—she told me she just thought she could help me. She said that I hurt her. And she’s right. I may not mean to, I didn’t plan on it, but we’ve both heard these stories before, right? The husband who insists it was an accident, the wife who apologizes for it, the friends and family-members who make excuses and rationalizations. It’s like a bad cliché, and I can’t do that to her. I won’t do that to her. She’s better off without me.”
Bae stared at him as if he’d never seen him before. Stared as if he’d only just realized, all over again, who—what—his father really was.
“Belle is a lovely young woman,” Gold said. His throat felt tight, thick; he tasted copper, as if the words were so painful they scraped against his mouth until he bled. “She has friends and family here, and soon enough she’ll find a real prince charming to love. Time for the beast to remember who he really is.”
Shaking his head, Bae let out an explosive breath. “I hate this! I hate it when you talk about yourself like this! Look, I don’t know Belle very well, but I don’t need to. I know you, and you’ve never raised a hand to me. You’ve never hurt me. You’ve never—”
“I let you go.”
Gold couldn’t believe this day was really happening. He’d been fighting for years to win Bae back, to earn his forgiveness, prove that he could be a good father. He’d been dreaming of something more with Belle for two years, had been conjuring up elaborate fantasies about a life shared quietly and wonderfully between the two of them. He’d reached for that future, believed in that reconciliation, and now?
Now he was alone. Belle was lying in a hospital probably trying to talk her own kind heart out of hating him, Bae was there to support him in ways he’d scarcely dared to dream would ever happen again—and Gold was dredging up all his old sins.
“I let you go,” he said, and Bae fell silent. “It took me years to look for you, and years more before I found you, and even then I’ve made mistakes. Besides, we both know there are more types of abuse than physical.”
Bae winced. Even now Gold still didn’t know everything that had happened to his brave, earnest little boy under Milah and Jones’s care, but he’d heard enough to send him raging through town for months, to send out an army of private investigators and others less aboveboard out searching for the one-handed criminal. Bae never needed to know what Gold had done to ensure the man would never harm him again, but Gold knew. He knew that at least in this one instance, far too late and far too little, he’d protected his son.
Not that it helped much when Bae flinched away from these memories. From the reminder that Gold had let his son, the thing he loved most in any and every world, go.
The classic sign of abuse, wasn’t it? An instinctive flinch away, the expectation of more pain, the resignation that it would come either way.
No, Gold might never have hit his son, never have pushed Belle, but they’d both ended up hurt for their involvement with him.
“So,” Bae said hoarsely, “you’re just going to let Belle go, too?”
Gold hunched in on himself, trying desperately to hide just how deep that barb had struck. That violence rose inside him again, a storm demanding to be unleashed. He curled in even tighter, desperate not to let it out anywhere near Bae.
“She doesn’t want me,” he finally rasped. “That’s not the same thing.”
A long pause, and then Bae stepped closer, so close Gold could see his feet, edging ever nearer. “Yeah, Pops. I know.”
And Bae stepped even closer, so close Gold had to look up. He reached out and tugged Gold the final step, wrapping him up in a hug. An embrace so enveloping that the rest of the world completely disappeared.
The first hug his son had given him in almost fourteen years.
Gold still couldn’t tell if this day was a dream or a nightmare, but now, with his son’s heart beating right next to his own, he desperately hoped it was as real as the pain in his heart.
It was a strange day indeed, Neal thought, when he had to help save his papa’s love life. Or more likely, single-handedly save his papa’s love life. If he was being honest, he was still a little surprised that Gold had a love life to save, though after a year of hearing about Belle this and Belle that, he should be used to it by now. For a bit, during those first awkward phone-calls and even more awkward visits, Neal had almost hated this Belle.
“Belle recommended this book the last time I went to the library,” his papa would say. “You should read it, son. It’s amazing. I should have known better than to doubt her.”
Or “Belle was telling me that she and her father used to meet for coffee once a week. I know…I know we can’t do that, but…maybe we could call over breakfast once a week?”
Or his favorite, “Belle said that courage comes in many different forms. I’ve never thought of it like that, but…well, maybe she’s right. Maybe we can both be brave in a different way. Do you…would it be okay if I came out there for a few days? Or just for one? Just to see you?”
When every conversation had been fraught with pitfalls and snares and shallowly buried resentment, when Neal had stumbled over saying too much—trying to rub it in to his long-absent father that he was doing fine without him—or saying too little—as angry as he was with his papa, it scared him to think that maybe one day Gold would disappear again—Belle had been the one constant. The one thing Gold could find to talk about, the one thing that Neal eventually knew he could ask about without having to worry about uncovering more of his father’s sins and guilt.
In the days when he didn’t know much about Gold’s life and Gold didn’t know how not to ask too much about his, Neal had envied Belle’s constant talks with his father, the openness Gold seemingly had with her, the way he listened to her and trusted her and did everything she told him.
Of course, eventually, he began to think of it as a good thing. As much as he loved the Papa of his memories, the shy man who’d rather look away than meet someone’s eyes, the papa who’d always had time for Bae and treated him as if he was his whole world—well, Neal had started to realize that much as he wanted that papa back, Gold hadn’t been happy back then. Oh, he’d loved his son, even in his darkest days, Neal had known that. But he’d been scared and lonely and desperately unhappy whenever Bae wasn’t with him.
It was strange, the first time Neal realized that Gold was happy. That Belle made him happy.
“I’m glad you have Belle,” he’d told Gold on one of their phone-calls, when they’d started growing comfortable around each other, after they’d talked about the coffeeshop they’d both liked in Boston and he’d mentioned maybe coming out to Storybrooke one day. “It’s nice to know she makes you happy.”
“Son,” Gold had said after a pause so long Neal had almost hung up thinking they’d been cut off. “You make me happy.”
“I know,” Neal had said, more than a bit uncomfortable, like always, at his papa’s raw sentiment. “But I’m not the only one anymore, and that’s a good thing.”
“I…” Gold had taken a deep breath. “I don’t have her. We’re…we’re barely friends. Just acquaintances, really.”
Neal had actually laughed, then, thinking that Gold was surely joking. But, no, Gold’s silence had been almost hurt, almost offended, and Neal had decided that something had to be done.
So, really, this wasn’t even the first time he’d helped along his papa’s love life. His first visit to Storybrooke had been, aside from seeing Henry and Emma, mostly just to finally meet this Belle that had his papa wrapped around her little finger.
Truthfully, he wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting. Someone older, definitely, probably not nearly as pretty—much as Neal loved his papa, he knew what people in that town thought of Gold and would have expected anyone as young and beautiful as Belle to have been properly scared off of Mr. Gold. But what he had expected was the kindness in her eyes and the empathy in her smile and the friendliness in her voice. His papa liked to think of himself as a monster, as a beast that no one would ever bully or torment again. But he’d always been drawn to the soft, the kind, the gentle, the brave—drawn to everything he didn’t think he was.
So despite her age and her looks, Neal hadn’t been too surprised to find the gentle, friendly Belle. And he’d been pretty happy to find out that Belle thought just as much of Gold as Gold thought of her.
“Baelfire?” she’d asked without him even having to introduce himself. A sure sign that Gold talked to her in a way he didn’t anyone else, because no one else in town even knew that he had a son.
She’d looked so happy, so wondering, at getting to meet him, and while she’d printed out a library card for him, she’d chattered on and on about Mr. Gold this and Mr. Gold that. “If you think of it, let him know that book he loaned me was as good as he said it was,” she’d said. And “Oh, and the Mayor hasn’t been by once, so thank him for me, would you? It’s such a relief not to have to worry about the funding being cut.” And his favorite, with shy eyes and soft voice, just before he’d left, she said, “I’m so glad that he has you now. I think he deserves to be happy, and you definitely make him that.”
“I’m not the only one,” he’d let her know, and left while her shy smile was still growing.
Gold had hardly been able to wait to hear what Neal thought of her, all breathless hope and wide eyes and poorly disguised fear.
“She’s great,” Neal had told him quickly, putting him out of his misery. “And I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Trust me, Papa, she’s just as into you.”
Whether it was because that was the first time Papa had slipped from his lips or because he’d let himself trust Neal’s assessment, Gold had never looked so happy.
Neal should have known, though, that something would happen to mess it all up. For whatever reason—some of it self-inflicted, definitely, but some of it just fate’s idea of a sense of humor—Gold had the worst luck. Of all the things that had worried Neal and made him take the extra days off and the long drive from Boston to Storybrooke for a surprise visit, he never would have guessed at what really happened.
One of those long ago conversations had Gold mentioning his ankle was bothering him after Belle had taken him up to her apartment above the library, so it wasn’t hard for Neal to track her down. He’d been too late to catch her at the hospital and could only hope she didn’t have too much company now. If it were up to him, he’d probably give her a few days to recover, but he knew just how little time it took Gold to convince himself of something so deeply it would take years to root it out of him. No, best to get this all cleared up as quickly as possible.
There was no answer when he knocked. Neal frowned. He knocked a few more times before admitting that no one was home. Maybe one of her friends was having her stay with them while she recovered, or hadn’t Gold said something about a father here in town? Maybe she was staying with him.
Neal turned to go back down the stairs and was caught short by the sight of Belle at the foot of them.
She startled and looked up at him. There was a bandage on one of her temples, and a brace around her right ankle, but aside from that, she looked reasonably well. At least until she joined him at the top of the stairs, close enough for him to see the bags under her eyes, the paleness of her skins, the wan strain of her smile.
“Hi, Bae,” she said. She ducked away from his eyes as she pulled out her keys and unlocked the door. “Did you want to come in?”
“If it’s not too much trouble.” Neal followed her in and took a single look around the small apartment. Books, books, and more books—spilling off of bookshelves, stacked up in piles on the floor, spilling over two of the three couch cushions, even lined up on a few of the kitchen counters. It was pretty much exactly what he’d expected, but no less charming for all that. Neal had always known his papa was smart; it didn’t surprise him to know that he’d fallen in love with someone who could keep up with him.
“I’m sorry it’s such a mess.” Belle’s hair fell over her face like a curtain, but not before he saw her cheeks flush pink. He was more concerned about the bandage on her temple.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “I kind of thought I’d have to wade through all your friends.”
“No, I…” She turned to fuss with some of the books on the couch, and Neal hurried to do it for her. His papa would kill him if he found out he’d made Belle work right after getting out of the hospital. “I didn’t tell them. And I’m fine.”
“Good. We were worried about you.”
“We?” She turned and looked directly at him. “He sent you to ask after me?”
“I…” She turned and hurried into the kitchen, opening and closing cabinets without taking anything out. “I was... I went to the shop as soon as I could, but it was closed. I didn’t know he ever closed the shop for a whole day.”
Neal thought of the house where his papa was holed up, the dark rooms, the monosyllabic answers he’d given Neal that morning, the sight of him sitting small and solitary in a chair staring at his bookshelves—probably right at the books Belle had recommended to him, Neal supposed.
“He doesn’t usually,” is all he said. “Look, Belle, this is kind of a strange situation, and if you think I’m interfering, I can’t blame you, but—”
“No, no, that’s…” She shook her head, her hands clutched around a little white teacup. “I’m just surprised, I guess, that he sent you to find out how I was doing. I know why he wouldn’t come himself, but I…I guess I hoped.”
Neal couldn’t help the brief burst of protectiveness flaring inside him. It’d been so long since he’d felt it, and yet just the feel of it was like a nostalgic burst of his childhood. Once, he’d been so eager to protect his papa from everything, from his own mom to the whole town where he grew up. It had been him and his papa against the world and he’d cherished that feeling. In all the intervening years, he’d almost forgotten that. It was strange, to feel it again, even stranger not to have to tamp it back and remind himself that his papa was the bully now.
“What do you mean?” he asked bluntly.
She just kept staring down at the cup. It had blue accents on the side, a trace of gold on the handle, and a chip in its lip.
“Belle,” he said, “look, I’m trying really hard here not to jump to conclusions because I think Pops does that well enough on its own, but after what he said…you’re kind of scaring me here.”
“What?” She blinked and looked over at him. “What are you talking about?”
He couldn’t help but huff out a laugh. “All right, let’s cut straight to the point, okay? You’re all right? Feeling okay?” At her nod, he said, “Okay, next order of business, did you accuse my dad of being abusive?”
“What?” Belle went rigid and stumbled backward. Grimacing, Neal hurried to pull a chair out from the table, empty it of books, and move it to her knees. She sank down onto it without even seeming to be aware of how it’d gotten there.
“Papa came home yesterday kind of shellshocked—and I get it, that’s kind of his default mode whenever anything emotional happens. But he didn’t seem happy, and when I asked—okay, poked until he finally answered—he said something about how he was poison to you and his love could only hurt people and something about you only going out with him because you wanted to change him and save the town.”
It took him a moment longer than it should have to notice because he was busy swallowing back anger that even saying those words out loud stirred up in him. But eventually he regained his composure and realized that Belle had gone completely white. The bruise peeking out from under her bandage looked even starker against her sallow complexion. She looked terrible enough that Neal’s fingers actually itched with the compulsion to dial 911 and get her back to the hospital.
“No,” she whispered. “No, no, no. This… I thought he was ashamed of me. He’s so secretive and I thought after having half the hospital staff burst in on our date, he’d never forgive me. And why should he? I mean, I’m a clumsy mess and I ruined our date with a stupid fall—I waited for this date for two whole years and I can’t believe I messed it up so badly, he’s never going to speak to me again—”
“Okay, wait, wait, just a second. You both are leaping to so many conclusions so fast I can’t keep up.” Neal waved his hands in the air so widely that he almost knocked over the chipped teacup. Belle gasped and snatched it up, clasping it close to her chest. “Sorry,” Neal said a bit belatedly.
“No, it’s fine. I just…” Belle smiled a soft, sad smile. “The first time I was brave enough to ask your father to stay for tea, I ran up here and brought down my best china. But then I dropped it. The tea splattered all over his shoes, but he only seemed to care about my cup. That’s when I knew that I didn’t care how long it took, I’d wait for him to be open to the idea of more with me.”
“If he was having tea with you, he was already open to the idea,” Neal told her.
Belle frowned. “We’d only known each other six months.”
“Trust me,” Neal rolled his eyes, “Papa doesn’t stop and have tea with just anyone. It probably just took him the next year to talk himself into the fact that you might want him back. Which…” He peered closely at her. “You do, right? I mean, that’s what I’m getting out of this whole chipped cup thing. You think after he saw you drop a teacup and fall off a ladder and knock into one of his shop displays that he’s suddenly going to think a little bit of clumsiness is the deal-breaker?”
Belle’s laugh was watery and shaky but so much better than that white blankness. “Everything we’ve done—talking in the library on the slowest night of the week, meeting in his pawnshop where no one ever goes, having tea in the breakroom or a picnic out in the woods—that’s all been private. Where no one can see. And I don’t blame him, really, I know I’m not really anything special and I’m too young for him, but… He wasn’t in the hospital when I woke up, Dr. Whale said that he claimed we were only out together for a deal, not a date, and now he sends you instead of coming himself. What am I supposed to think?”
“That Papa’s spent several decades cultivating a nasty reputation in town and he doesn’t want to smear you with it.” Neal crouched down so he could look up at Belle’s face. He wasn’t sure how old she was, wasn’t sure what her whole story was, but he hoped, oh how he hoped, that she was going to be a mainstay in his life, and for that, she had to understand Papa.
Understand him in a way no one but Bae ever really had—and even now, Neal wasn’t sure he knew him well enough.
But Belle… Maybe Belle could.
“I’m sorry he wasn’t there. But trust me, Belle, he’s not ashamed of you. In fact, he thinks you’re way too good for him. And I don’t know what you said yesterday, but he’s convinced that you’re afraid of him.”
“Oh, no.” Belle dropped her face into her hands. “Yesterday, before our date, I told my friends who I was going out with. They…they weren’t very open-minded. They gave me all kinds of warnings, intimated that—”
“Yeah, I got it.” Neal gritted his teeth. He’d complained about his papa a lot in his life, but he hated hearing anyone else speak out against a man they didn’t even know—and had never made an attempt to get to know.
“I don’t remember a lot of what happened after I fell,” Belle admitted, “but I know I was worried about what they’d think when I came back from our date with a bump on my head. Maybe…maybe I said something about it to him? He really thinks that I’m afraid of him?”
Neal sighed. “Anything Papa can think badly about himself, he will.”
“I never wanted to hurt him.” Color rushed back to Belle’s face so suddenly that she flushed pink with resolve. “He’ll never speak to me again.”
She did understand Papa. Neal smiled at her. “Yeah. Sorry, but it looks like you’re going to have to do a lot of the work here.”
“Well, I did always want to be a hero,” she said with the beginnings of a real smile. “I suppose I can start by saving the dragon.”
“I’ll drive you,” Neal offered.
It was definitely a strange day, but Neal found that he didn’t mind being the white steed for his papa’s knight in shining armor.
The sun had long since vanished behind heavy stormclouds, there was a strong breeze whipping soggy leaves down the streets, and it was chilly enough Belle had to shiver deeper into her jacket. Yet for all that, she was hopeful that this would end up being a better day than the one before.
She darted a sidelong glance to Neal as they pulled up in front of Mr. Gold’s house. “You’re sure?” she asked.
His smile was warm and expansive and everything she knew Gold’s could be. “I’m sure. Don’t worry, Belle. If you can be brave, he can too.”
“Thank you, Baelfire.” She should probably feel embarrassed, this man her own age helping her start a relationship with his father. She only felt so grateful to have his support, so blessed to know him.
“You’re the only one besides him to call me that, you know,” he said.
Belle frowned. “Oh. Did you…did you not want me to call you that?”
“Nah.” He waved his hand. “I like it. Good luck, Belle. And thanks—for caring.”
With a final smile, she got out of the car and made her way toward the front door. Bae had offered her the key, but Belle didn’t want to barge in. She wanted Gold to invite her in.
Clasping the cup tighter in her hand, she reached out with the other to ring the doorbell. Do the brave thing and bravery will follow, she told herself and the pit in her stomach.
It took a long time and another few rings before she finally heard the tapping of his cane. There was a scowl on his face when he pulled the door open that quickly melted into a look of shocked disbelief.
“Belle,” he whispered.
“Hi.” She tried smiling at him, hoping it didn’t look too flimsy. “Can I come in?”
“Of course.” He ushered her in, all worry and solicitousness as he fretted over her ankle and the stairs and ushered her to a plush chair in a living room that reminded her a lot of his pawnshop. Her heart twinged uncomfortably when she noticed the picture frames leaned up against the walls, all of them empty. As if waiting for something to come.
“I’m fine,” she assured him. “Really, my ankle doesn’t hurt at all.”
“And your head?” His hand lifted as if to touch it before he hastily tucked it back over his cane. He sat, she didn’t fail to notice, almost the entire room’s length away from her. “Did you need anything?”
“I wanted to make sure you were okay,” she said.
He blinked at her before looking away, his mouth trembling as he strained for composure. “I’m fine. I’m not the one who was hurt.”
“You’re not the one who fell.” She rolled her eyes self-deprecatingly. “That was me, clumsy as usual. But you—”
“You’re not clumsy,” he said quietly.
Belle stared at him. “What? You know I am.”
“No, you’re…you’re fearless. You throw yourself forward, give everything you are to whatever you attempt, and maybe it backfires occasionally, but that doesn’t detract from how brave you are. How willing you are to put yourself out there.”
“Thank you,” she said hoarsely past the lump in her throat. She’d trusted Neal when he told her that Gold wasn’t ashamed of her, but oh, how nice it was to hear such wonderful compliments from the man himself. “Anyway, I know you didn’t fall, but that doesn’t mean you weren’t hurt.”
His face was pure confusion. “I assure you, I’m unharmed.”
“I know. But I also know that something I said might have hurt you.”
“Ah.” He looked away, his face closing in on itself, falling back with the ease of long familiarity into the impassive mask. Only, she knew how to look past it now, how to see behind the cracks to the pain layered beneath, the hope hidden deep below. “Bae spoke to you, didn’t he? I told him to leave well enough alone.”
Belle ignored the twinge in her ankle—it wasn’t quite as mild a sprain as she’d led him to believe—and moved to sit closer to him. On the same couch but with a cushion between so as not to crowd him. As if he’d somehow missed the fact that she was holding the chipped teacup, he blinked down at the hand she held out toward him.
“The chipped cup,” he said. There was a furrow in his brow as he looked back up at her.
“I could have thrown it out,” she said. “In fact, most people would tell me to do so and then never give it a second thought.”
“But you didn’t.”
“I didn’t. I kept it. It’s my favorite cup. It reminds me of all kinds of wonderful things.”
When he looked up from the chip to her face, she caught her breath to see the naked longing written there. “It’s my favorite too,” he admitted, a whispered confession she caught and clasped close.
“Yesterday,” she said, “I was so excited to have lunch with you that I told my friends about it. They weren’t very happy, and they said some things that made me so angry I tried to forget it.”
Wincing, Gold looked away. Belle scooted just a bit closer to him, the cup held between them.
“But then, when I fell, I couldn’t help but think what conclusions they’d draw. I wasn’t really thinking clearly, and maybe I wasn’t speaking clearly either, because I remember worrying about what you thought of me—I’d tried so hard to be sophisticated and graceful and beautiful enough to be seen with you, and there I was, fallen in the ditch, a mess of mud and leaves and blood. I remember how kind you were. How gentle as you helped me up, how brave you were to keep so calm and get me help. And I remember wondering how anyone could ever, ever think you were a beast.”
“Oh, Belle,” he murmured, and this time, he was the one who shifted a bit nearer. Belle’s heart leapt in excitement.
“And I remember waking up in the hospital, so eager to see you, and you weren’t there. I remember thinking that maybe you’d realized I was never going to change. I’m always going to be the clumsy dreamer who’s probably annoyingly idealistic and unrealistically naïve. And I thought maybe you’d think the date was a mistake.”
“If it was a mistake, it was only yours,” he said, voice caught in some strange mixture of bitterness and wistfulness. “Belle, sweetheart, I don’t want you to change. Everything you are…it’s perfect. You’re like sunlight, like hope. But I…I will hurt you. Apparently, I already did. Maybe your friends are right—”
“My friends want to throw out the chipped cup.” Belle reached out—her heart in her throat—and curled the cup into his hands.
“No.” Then he twisted and set the cup down on an endtable far too ornate to be in a regular living room. Belle’s heart stuttered as he turned back around and slid over the final inches until he was pressed up against her. She thought maybe the move was a final test, because he watched her closely as he did it. Belle just snuggled in closer to him, lifted her feet onto the couch so she could turn and face him.
The movement brought their faces incredibly close together. So close that if she tipped her head up, if he bent his, this could turn into a much, much better day than yesterday.
Belle tipped her head up.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there when you woke up,” Gold murmured. His hand rose. His finger touched—like the plink of a single raindrop—her cheek.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t lucid enough to realize that I hurt you,” she murmured back. Her hand rose so that her own fingers could run through his hair.
Gold bent his head.
“How about dinner tonight?” she whispered as his mouth brushed the edges of hers. “A redo.”
“Dinner?” His nose nuzzled her cheek. “That’s hours away.”
“Well, I’m sure we can find something to—”
Gold kissed her. It was better than sunlight, better than blue skies and good weather and spring days.
Belle kissed him back. It was better than any dream, far outside any nightmare.
They kissed, and maybe everyone else would think it the strangest of pairings, but Belle had never been so happy or so hopeful.
This, she knew, this was their future, and she knew it was worth every bit of the pain and the patience that had brought them here.
I love you, she thought, and smiled into the kiss when she heard him say it back.