Belle didn't know about Rory's problems with her parents until after she had decided to move back to Storybrooke. The cousins had mostly lost touch after Belle's mother, Aurora's maternal aunt, had died and Belle's father had decided that the memories had been too much for him. He had returned to Australia and Belle had gone with him. Aurora had been a young child back then, six years younger than an almost adult Belle. There had been some letters and phone calls exchanged over the years but that had been barely enough to keep up on the basics of their lives.
But Belle had missed Storybrooke and some of the people living there. She hadn't exactly missed her Uncle Stephen, whom she had always found a too prim and proper man, rigidly set in his ways. Aurora, though, was one of the people she did miss. So when the opportunity came to move back, with a job that entailed doing what she loved, Belle seized it with both hands.
Aurora had come to pick her up at the Boston airport as Belle would have to reacquaint herself to driving on the right side of the road. Belle noticed that her cousin was positively glowing. Aurora had always been a happy child but in the past few years, as her father started to groom her to take over his business empire, some of the spark had gone out. It was back, though, and Belle simply had to ask.
"You look really happy."
"That's because I'm happy," Aurora said, smiling widely.
"Is there a particular reason for that happiness?" Belle asked and Aurora giggled. Belle got a feeling she would have twirled around if not for the fact she was driving.
"I'm in love," Aurora confessed and for a moment Belle was almost jealous. She had yet to meet a person who would make her feel like Aurora did.
"And who's the one? Philip?"
Philip was Aurora's boyfriend of two years. His father and Aurora's father were business partners and it was clear they expected their children to get together. From what little Belle had gathered about the young man from Aurora's words, he was nice enough. But Aurora had never acted this way when talking about him.
"Philip and I broke up. It's actually one of the reasons I'm no longer living at home."
Belle was glad she wasn't the one driving because she would have slammed the brake at the news.
"What? When? Why?"
"How?" Aurora said with a grin. "Who? Any other pronouns?"
Belle, very maturely, stuck out her tongue before both of them laughed. Aurora sobered after a moment.
"It's been about a month. I got into an argument with Dad. You know how he expected me to follow in his footsteps. A business management degree from an Ivy League school, coming back to work at his company to learn the ropes for one day taking over, marrying Philip and having a child. My whole life was linked for me and although it wasn't what I wanted, I didn't know what else I wanted so I went along. Because it was better than the uncertainty."
Belle nodded. She could understand why some people would want to stick to certainties of life instead of taking the risks. Her father was the same.
"But then I met Mulan and things fell into place. Philip is a great man. He's kind and courteous and respectful, a good kisser, too. Marrying him wouldn't have been a hardship but it wouldn't have been special. There was something lacking in our relationship, some kind of spark, a feeling of the whole world fading away when you're together."
"And you have that spark with Mulan?"
Aurora merely smiled and no words were needed.
"My Dad was furious when he found out. I think the thing that bothered him the most is that Mulan is a woman. He was horrified by me being a lesbo. It's apparently inappropriate for his heir." There was a lot of bitterness in Aurora's voice and Belle reached over to squeeze her shoulder in comfort.
"That's bullshit. You are an amazing young woman and you were lucky to find love. If your Dad is too stupid to see it, well, screw him!"
"Sorry, I just imagined you telling him that and-"
"I can do it. You know I can."
Aurora looked over at Belle and smiled.
"I missed you, cousin."
"I missed you, too."
The librarian job came with a furnished apartment above the library. Aurora helped Belle to unpack the necessities and then dragged her off to celebrate her return.
Belle had expected either Granny's or Rabbit Hole - Storybrooke had never been big on the whole entertainment thing, what with Boston only a couple of hours away - but Aurora took her into a place that must have been fairly new.
"Cottage," Belle read out loud as Aurora proudly showed off the place. It was a one-story building, with decorative carvings on windows and a sloping roof covered in yellow shingles. A straw roof imitation, Belle guessed.
"I work here part-time. My Dad has cut me off from everything until I repent for my mistakes."
"Rory, if you ever need anything-"
Aurora waved her offer off.
"Not necessary. The job here pays enough to cover my share of rent at Mulan's and I'm putting money away so I can get into college in the fall. Nothing fancy but enough to get my degree in psychology."
They entered the restaurant together and Belle fell in love a little. The interior was almost entirely made of wood - tables, chairs, benches, floor. The lamps were imitations of antique oil lamps and the linen tablecloths looked hand-made.
"It's beautiful here."
"Martin says it has a rustic charm."
"The chef here," Aurora said and then she grinned. "We're contractually obliged to call him by his first name."
Belle was almost sure Aurora was pulling her leg.
"Really. One of the reasons this job pays so well. Martin has his quirks but then, who doesn't?"
"He's also the owner?"
Aurora nodded and steered Belle over to a corner table, snatching a menu from a stand in the middle of the room as they passed it.
"Take a look but it's Saturday so I would go with the veal special. I'll get us a drink, okay?"
Belle nodded as she perused the menu. The restaurant seemed to specialize in meals from veal and mutton and there was quite a selection of cheeses, too. Belle decided to listen to Aurora's advice and when her cousin came back, Belle told her she would have the veal special.
While waiting for Aurora to bring out their meals, Belle looked around the place. There were only four other customers in the room. For a moment, Belle wondered how the place managed to stay open but then again, it was a Saturday afternoon. For all she knew, the place was packed in the evenings.
"Two veal specials, with a secret sauce," Aurora announced as she put the plates down. Belle took in the artfully arranged cutlets of meat, with a reddish sauce pooled around them.
"A secret sauce?"
"Don't knock it 'til you tried it. Mulan and I come here once a week and she never orders anything without the sauce. Martin is really secretive about it, too. He comes in an hour early so no one can watch him prepare it."
"Hmm," Belle murmured as she cut off a piece of meat, dipped it into the sauce and tasted it. She vaguely heard Aurora laugh at her expression but she could hardly blame her. The sauce was divine. Not too sour, not too sweet, not too salty, not too tangy, just about the right mix of tastes.
"Was I right or was I right?" Aurora asked, grinning as she tucked into her own meal.
"Don't gloat, it's not polite," Belle told her off half-heartedly. It seemed she had a new favourite place to eat at.
Over the following months, Belle had become a regular at the Cottage. She tried to schedule her visits to coincide with Aurora's shifts, so she could keep in touch with her cousin. They tried to get together every other weekend but Aurora was doing online courses to better prepare for college and her time was spare. Belle also didn't want to cut too much into her time with Mulan. Although the women lived together, Mulan had her job as a Chemistry/PE teacher at the local high school to keep her busy and she also ran self-defense lessons for women. A time to go out without any worries was a precious commodity and Belle was not taking it away from Aurora.
Coming to Cottage when Aurora was working was the best solution. The restaurant was never too busy so Aurora could usually slip away for a few minutes to talk to Belle. By this point, Belle had tried every dish on the menu and had a set of five or so that became her favourites. In all that time, though, she had never once so much as glimpsed the mysterious chef Martin.
Aurora took great delight in teasing her about her curiousity, always citing her contract as forbidding her to talk about her boss in detail. From what little she had let slip, though, Belle ascertained that the owner/chef at Cottage was an older man, with a lot of money, who liked his privacy and running the restaurant was more of a hobby to him than necessity.
He was also helping out a lot of young people in situations similar to Aurora's. People who were abandoned or thrown out by their family because of their beliefs or orientation or who wanted to pursue dreams that were contrary to their family's expectations.
Belle had been told often as a child that she was too curious for her own good. She forgot how many times she had been told that 'curiousity killed the cat'. She had had a field day when she found the rest of the saying and retaliated with 'satisfaction brought it back' on every opportunity thereafter.
She wanted to know more about the man who was such a mystery and she wasn't going to give up on solving it. Because if there was one thing Belle loved above all else, it was a good mystery.
Mulan and Aurora had left for the weekend for the celebration of Mulan's grandmother's 80th birthday and would stay away until Monday. Belle was glad that Mulan's parents seemed to be more accepting of that relationship than Aurora's father was. She was half-hoping for a Thanksgiving invitation just so she could tell Stephen off. Then again, she could quite easily see herself celebrating with Mulan and Aurora instead. It would be much more pleasant. She wasn't quite sure what to think of Aunt Rose but from what little she recalled, the woman had always followed her husband's lead so she doubted she would support a reconcilliation against his wishes.
Well, it was useless to think about things that were still a few months away. Belle had a Friday evening free and wasn't in a mood to get social in a bar. She also wasn't in a mood for a book which was rare for her but it happened on occasion. The best cure for that lassitude was to walk it off.
Grateful for the fact that Storybrooke had so little crime, Belle set out to walk through the town. She would wave to people who recognized her but otherwise kept her pace slow and even. She had really missed the town. There was something about Storybrooke's ambience that seemed almost magical, like it was a place where anything could happen.
Belle was not surprised when she ended up at Cottage after an hour and a half. The place had become one of her favourites shortly after Aurora brought her there for the first time but she usually went there for lunch. Cottage was usually open until nine and it was already half past that and she expected it to be closed down. There was a light on in the window and Belle decided to see if she could finally crack the mystery of the chef.
Belle pushed open the door just as it was pulled open from inside and the sudden movement made her overbalance and fall forward. Bracing for the impact, she fell instead against something warm and soft.
"Are you okay?" a soft voice with what she thought was a Scottish accent said into her ear and Belle straightened up, coming face to face with a man only slightly taller than her, with the most gorgeous brown eyes she had ever seen.
"Yes, I'm fine. Thank you for catching me."
The man gave her a nod and let go of where he was still holding her arm.
"It's the least I could do for my favourite customer," he said. "Although I do wonder what brings you here this late?"
"I was on a walk, to clear my mind," Belle replied and then she realized what he had said before. "Wait, since when am I your favourite customer? Martin?" she tacked on cautiously.
The man held open the door for her and gestured her inside.
"That'd be me. As for why you're my favourite customer, your favourite meals are the same as mine. It's always a pleasure to prepare your lunch."
Belle hoped the low light masked the blush in her cheeks. There was just something about the combination of Martin's eyes, his voice and the atmosphere of the closed restaurant that made the situation seem more intimate than it truly was.
"How would you even recognize me?" she asked, to distract herself. He picked up a cane she hadn't noticed before and led her towards her usual table.
"Aurora loves to show off pictures from your outings. Also," he paused and looked at her thoughtfully. "I'm not sure I should destroy the illusions you have about this place."
Belle took a seat at her usual place and thought for a moment.
"I'm a big girl, I can take it."
He pointed towards four different places where the wooden decorations hung on the wall.
"Security cameras. They let me oversee the entire place."
"That's practical," Belle said. She wasn't really disappointed by that revelation. The cameras were masked well enough that you only noticed their presence if you had them pointed out. The rustic charm was still intact for her.
"Indeed," he agreed. He finally sat down across from her and for a few minutes they just sat there and looked at each other. It should have been awkward but it felt familiar and comfortable instead.
"Thank you for letting me in this late."
"It was no trouble," he replied.
"Aurora speaks very kindly of you, I was curious about the man behind the stories."
He looked away briefly.
"I'm just a man who's making up for his mistakes, nothing more." There was another lull of silence that was interrupted by Belle's yawning. She flushed in embarrassment, especially when she caught a twitch of his lips. "But maybe we should postpone our little tètè-à-tètè for a more opportune time."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to-"
He held up a hand to halt her apologies.
"That's quite alright, my dear. I shall see you tomorrow for lunch?"
"I'll be there."
Belle wasn't sure how to define her relationship with Martin. She would come for lunch every Saturday and she would go over at least twice a week after closing to sit and talk with him about everything and anything. It almost felt like they were dating but with a notable lack of physical intimacy. She didn't think he wasn't attracted to her. She saw him looking at her legs often enough and if she wore her shortest skirts for their meetings, well, who could blame her.
As for her attraction to him, she woke up often enough from dreams involving dexterous hands and Scottish voice crooning into her ear as those hands touched her all over. But she didn't want to ruin the easy comfort they found in each other so she kept dodging the subject of finding where their relationship fit in the terms of labels even in her own mind.
Sooner or later, something was going to give. And that something was her patience.
Belle remembered that first day she had come back and talked to Aurora. She remembered her envy of what the other woman had found, of that spark that was brought on by the mere thought of Aurora's love.
It was a small moment, really. Aurora was in the library, reading a text she needed for her essay and she kept brushing away a lock of hair that kept escaping from where she had tucked it behind her ear. Mulan, who had come over to talk to Belle about her sign-up for the self-defense lessons she ran, sighed indulgently and walked over, tugging off her own hair tie and gathering Aurora's hair into a high ponytail. Aurora smiled up at her and they kissed briefly, lost in their own world for a moment before Aurora went back to her reading.
It didn't last more than a few seconds but Belle was shaken to her core with what she had witnessed.
This was what she wanted. The feeling of the whole world fading away at the slightest touch of your loved one, the spark that caught on and never burned out. Belle wanted it and she knew with whom she wanted to feel it.
It was time for her to be brave and go after what she wanted.
"Martin, that first night we talked, you said you were just a man making up for his mistakes."
Belle had a feeling Martin had never meant for her to know about that. That the mistakes he had mentioned were what was keeping him from acting on their mutual attraction. If she showed him she understood, that she recognized his repentance for what it was, then maybe, just maybe they could move on from this limbo they were in.
"It's not something I'm proud of."
"I don't want to drive you away," he admitted.
"You won't, not with honesty."
He sighed and just when Belle thought she had pushed too far and too much, he started to speak.
"I wasn't a good man when I was younger. I was driven by ambition and greed. I climbed out of a gutter and swore that I would never again return there. Everything I did, everything I aimed for, it was centred about getting as much money and power as possible. Maybe I was lucky, maybe I was just ruthless enough but I managed to climb to the top. I had money and power and security. But the fear wouldn't leave me. What if something went wrong? What if I lost everything? It got worse after my son was born. He became the justification for everything I did. After all, if I was doing bad things for him, it couldn't be that bad, could it?"
Martin fell silent and stared off into distance. Belle reached over and put her hand over his. The touch startled him into continuing.
"I never killed anyone or anything like that but I ruined a lot of people and businesses. And still it wasn't enough. My wife ran off with a younger man who paid her attention and I clung to my son all the more for it. But the more I tried to hold on to him, the more he resented me. Until one day, he left as well."
"I'm sorry," Belle said for a lack of anything better to say. Martin smiled at her but it was a weak smile.
"It really made me think about what a monster I had become for the first time. Losing my son was the worst pain I ever experienced and I realized I couldn't go on like that. I started to treat my business partners with more respect. I stopped closing the businesses at the first sign of failure and rather looked for other options. I lost some money but I also gained some and as things became balanced, I swore to myself I would never again be the man I was."
"What about your son?"
"I found him a few years later. When I was sure I could face him again, I went and talked to him. I usually visit him and his family during the major holidays."
Belle smiled at him. It was clear that Martin was a man who had been too harsh on himself. She had been worried that the mistakes he had mentioned would be something unforgivable but that was not the case.
"You are a good man, Martin," she said and took hold of his hand, intertwining their fingers and squeezing. "And I want to kiss you right now. I wanted to for a while."
"Belle," he breathed out in wonder and leaned in and when their lips finally touched, it was all Belle could have wished for. The world faded away from them and a spark burst into an inferno.