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Come Slowly

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The next morning he lingered longer than usual, and she did too, pouring the coffee slowly, cooking the eggs with care. When she passed him his plate, their fingers touched, and they gasped simultaneously. When he finally managed to peek at her, make the eye contact he’d been avoiding all morning, he didn’t see a startled girl or a frown or a mouth set to bitterness. She was biting her lip, mouth half curled into a smile, eyes apologetic and eyebrows crooked in what could only be called bashful.

And then she laughed.

He did, too.

“I added cheese,” she said, when they’d finally calmed, and motioned to his plate. “Sharp cheddar.”

“My,” he said. “You minx.”

She’d done it again, made this easy. How could he ever thank her?

The rest of breakfast was filled with their usual reverie. Gentle banter and the clearing of breakfast plates, though the hour was later, the sun higher. By now they’d normally be gathering keys, purse, briefcase - but it was Sunday, and there would be no morning walk to the library or pawn shop as had become their custom.

Sunday meant a return to their own homes once breakfast was over, a return to the routine he knew before Belle had entered his life. Sundays used to be a reprieve from the week - a toast to the week’s triumphs in landlording and pawnbroking, a celebration honored with day drinking. Perhaps a call to Bae where he’d leave a voicemail or, on the grand occasion, speak to his son. Sundays carried a special kind of loneliness, one warmer than the rest of the week.

But this particular Sunday - no. The thought of returning home after their breakfast, after the night they’d spent together, oh, last night! - no, no, not yet!

He cracked his knuckles in an absentminded gesture, meant to hide how very present he was. His mind was heavy with the movements he’d seen underneath the covers, and a glance in Belle’s direction showed her lost in similar vague gestures, a hand running lightly over the counter.

“I have errands to run today,” she said.

“I do too,” he said, thinking.

“Some groceries, some shopping. Would you like,” she started, looking up, hand leaving the counter. “Since we normally walk to work together, perhaps today, well. We could walk into town together, as usual. Run our errands together.”

He smiled, a wondrous feeling bubbling up inside him, enough to make him bite his lips so he wouldn’t appear like a toothy, grinning goon. “I’d like that.”

Storybrooke had its fair share of tourists in the summer. It wasn’t too hot yet, and the shops were charming. Both the docks and the storefronts were busy with families and children, crowds that left him uncomfortable and swallowing. Their early morning strolls usually tucked them securely away into their respective back rooms and front desks before any crowds appeared. But this - they were doing it again. Going out in public together, being seen. He wasn’t so averse anymore, less afraid than he’d been before their lunch together.

She was beside him with a careful saunter, past the library, past his shop, on the way further into town. Each glance her way gave him something lovely, that shine of her hair or the cut of her skirt, and the whole thing made his hand itch.

Oh, his hand itched, itched and itched! And his fingernails tingled, and the tip of his tongue tasted tart. He looked down at his palm, his wrist. He couldn’t see those marks anymore, the ones threatening to bleed. He thought of Belle’s palm and his, and their wrists, hidden as they’d been under the covers last night, and the things they did. He felt whole, he decided, he felt ready.

He reached for her hand.

She startled, briefly, and looked down where his fingers had intertwined with hers. They weren’t against sheets, but open air, and he waited to see if his impulse had been folly.

Belle smiled, gave his hand a squeeze, and they kept walking.

They came upon the docks, and Belle paused a moment, leading them both to the wooden railing so they could look out over the water. She stared for a while, long and quiet over the sea. He indulged in a rub of his thumb over her knuckles, and looked too.

“I like the ocean,” she said, like she was sharing the very best of a secret.

Seagulls flocked around them in choking caws, family chatter passed them by as they headed toward their simple destination of groceries. Such a domestic affair, watching her pluck a pear, grip it to test its firmness, bring it to her nose to test the scent. Checking eggs for cracks, bananas for ripeness.

She seemed quite oblivious to the stares they received at the checkout, or she was intentionally ignoring them. Either way, she had the fortune of choosing the only clerk who wore a smile.

“How’s your dad?” Belle asked of the soft-expressioned blonde who accepted her groceries.

“Good!” the girl chirped, and Gold knew her, though her name was lost at the moment, name tag hidden behind her hair. Just a few years younger than Bae, yes, the same school, years before.

“And how’s . . .? Erm,” the girl said, looking between Gold and Belle, the two they’d so clearly become.

“He’s good, too,” Belle smiled cheekily, nudging Gold’s elbow, and he furrowed his brows, said nothing. “I hear you’re flying the Storybrooke nest soon. Off to college, where was it?”

“California!” the girl said, and Gold knew her now. Grace, Jefferson’s daughter.

“Your dad will certainly love that,” he said, and Grace frowned, but Belle nudged his elbow again and offered him a small laugh for his poor joke.

“He’s right, Jeff will miss you terribly. When do you leave?” Belle asked.

“Just after the parade, this year. Dad loves leading the band, you know. You’ll be there?” Grace said. The clink of the register and the print of Belle’s receipt had Grace blinking, then blushing. “Oh, I mean, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say, of course you won’t be there, I -”

“It’s all right,” Belle said, accepting her bags, her change, Grace nearly dropping it all during her fumble. “I might be there this year. To see you off, at the very least.”

“Sorry,” Grace said again, but Belle waved off her apology as no matter.

Out on the street and back to the gulls, Gold offered to take Belle’s bags but she smiled the offer away. Her saunter was less careful, her hand not immediately available to be held again, and he frowned.

“Everyone’s awkward around us,” Gold said.

“That one was all me, I’m sure,” Belle said sadly. “Her father and Greyson used to work together.”

“Jefferson,” Gold said slow, and the name spoken aloud gave Belle pause, and Gold wondered.

He’d opened up about Milah, more freely than he thought he would. Little pieces of the puzzle, not all yet present, but there. Belle’s own puzzle was slowly evolving, and here was a piece, he could see.

“Jefferson Hatter,” Gold repeated, and yes, there it was again, the break in her stride. The little piece turning.

She stopped, and he stopped too.

She reached for his hand, brought it to her mouth. That telltale move in their shared bed when she needed courage before speaking.

“I need to tell you about Greyson,” she said. “You see, well. I don’t think the person he loved knew that he loved him.”

Gold’s brows rose and his lips parted, but he said nothing, and they kept walking. He waited, knowing what it was like to sort such a large tangle inside before it could become words, syllables, sentences.

“We were very young when we married,” she started, and brought his hand to her mouth again, the words opening against his knuckles. “I was a mousy little bookworm and he was handsome and popular. So enigmatic, and charming. He could make you feel like you were the only one in the room. He liked being . . . big, I think, with someone small, and less charismatic, beside him.”

How huddled they were, their strange close walk, his hand at her mouth.

“I just knew that I felt special, and cared for. And I truly cared for him, wanted him happy. I think in the beginning, he wanted that too.”

“But,” Gold said, “he loved someone else.”

“Yes. He loved someone else.”

She sniffed, though he saw no tears.

“Not right away, he didn’t. But I could feel it, in our marriage. The regret he started to feel. When someone else with that same bigness approached him, that same charisma - it didn’t push him away, but rather, drew him in. He was . . . so drawn to him. But Greyson was a man of commitment, he wouldn’t act on his feelings . . . but . . . he wouldn’t talk about them, either. He would talk about everything else, everything else, but . . .”

“ . . . but the fact that he loved Jefferson.”

She nodded, and their clasped hands dropped in between them.

“And . . . Jefferson never knew?”

She nodded again, then crinkled her brow. “No. I don’t think he did.”

“Did Grace?”

Belle sighed. “They only have eyes for each other, those two. Jeff only sees Grace, Grace only sees Jeff. I don’t think she knew. Or was too young to notice, maybe.”

She had said it all so carefully, so heedful. Gold hummed, though he could feel the intensity her grip had taken. Their walk brought them upon the storefronts just beyond the docks - the people were more here, the crowd just a little thicker, and they continued in silence.

When they reached a particular storefront of lilac and green, Belle paused again.

“My father’s old shop,” she said.

“I remember,” he said.

Her father had moved back to Australia some several years before, leaving behind the flower shop he couldn’t keep afloat - it’d been bought again, it seemed, ready to slough off his memory and move on without him.

“I think we should go in there,” Belle said.

He nodded at first, thinking he’d relive a small bit of her past with her, memories of flower petals and thorns to distract from memories of Greyson. But it wasn’t the old flower shop she started to lead them to, but the fishing supply store just ahead, the one run by Leroy.

“What?” he asked. “Why?”

“Leroy’s in there.”

“. . . that doesn’t answer my question.”

She looked at him, cocking her head.

"Do you harbor a passion for fish and tackle I’ve yet to be made aware of?”

Belle laughed, some of their tension breaking. “I want him to see us together.”

“Surely he saw us at the diner.”

“He didn’t. He wasn’t there.”

Gold sighed. “Wasn’t he? I didn’t notice.”

“You did. And I think we should go.”

When he didn’t move forward with her, when she was left tugging on his hand awkwardly, she stopped and turned around. She opened her mouth to speak, then frowned. “I’m sorry. I’m assuming again, aren’t I? We don’t have to, if you’d rather not.”

He was ready to agree, but her repetition of that phrase, the one he’d snapped at her so early in their relationship caught him, and he wavered.

He bit his tongue, let the sting swell. The sound of seagulls continued about them, counting out the beats until he could reply. He looked at Belle, rubbed her knuckles again. He pictured Leroy, he pictured Greyson, Jefferson. The face Belle had worn when she’d made her confession. He rubbed her knuckles again, bit his tongue again, and made a choice.

“No. You’re right,” he said. “Let’s go.”

She stared down at their joined hands, her cheeks reddening. “We don’t have to, I was just - ”

“I know what you were doing, and I’m grateful for the gesture. What’d you eat for dinner last night?”

She blinked, confused at the transition. “Um,”

“A sandwich?”

“. . . what about it?”

“I’ll go in that shop with you, if you let me feed you something more substantial than a sandwich for dinner.”

“Okay,” she said. “When? Tonight?”

“Tonight.”

“All right,” she said. “All right,” her cheeks reddening further.

They entered the shop, no tinkling of bells like he was familiar with in his own door. Leroy was there, of course, leaning against the front of his counter, arms folded and busy in conversation with another man, another pair of folded arms. They looked up together as Gold and Belle entered, together furrowed their brows.

“Hello to you too, Leroy,” Belle announced, though he’d said nothing. “How are you today?”

Leroy shifted. “Good. I’m - ”

“Good. Now, I’m going to make this quick,” she began, and all three men seemed to shrink. “I just wanted to come by to show you . . . here,” she said, and held up her hand where it was joined with Gold’s. “I just wanted to show you this. I don’t like the things you’ve been implying around town. Mr. Gold likes me, very much, and, you can see, well, you can see, here,” and she emphasized their hands again. “I like him, too.”

Gold’s astonishment kept him from uttering anything beyond a nod.

“We’re out together,” she continued, “and, you see, well. Last night, there was a towel, and,” she licked her lips, and when Gold looked down at her, just in time to see her fluid pace break, he felt their pulses flutter simultaneously.

She closed her eyes, shook her head. She’d grown pale. “Well, anyway, that’s the whole of it. So, no more gossip implying otherwise, please. We’re off, now. Thank you.”

She turned, too fast, and her bag of eggs hit the door and Gold heard a crack. He followed her, not bothering with a tip of the head towards Leroy or his man, and exited the shop with Belle.

“Towel?” Leroy said.

“Sounds messy,” the man said.

Back down the docks Belle headed, that pale pallor never leaving her, and Gold’s worry squeezed her hand. He blinked and blinked again at the encounter he had just witnessed - a bizarre, hasty thing, and he wondered if his own face was pale.

“Belle,” he said.

But she didn’t hear him, and kept walking until they’d reached a bit of railing that was deserted of gulls and family. She dropped her bags and he heard that cracking noise again.

“Belle,” he said, and she made a funny little huff sound before turning to face him. Her eyes were darting, unfocused.

“I can’t believe I - oh, did you hear me? I can’t believe - “

“Belle,” he said, grasping her chin, gently, and she saw him this time, heard him.

“I’m so sorry, Lachlan, I -”

“I like the ocean, too,” he said.

“. . . what?”

He rubbed her chin, watched her tongue dart out, dry and trying. He tucked his cane into the crook of his arm, brought his other hand up and cupped her cheek.

“The sound, the smell. When the sky is cloudy and gray and it all blends together.”

“Yes,” she said, her stupor leaving, heavy breath, and she blinked up into him. “Yes,” she said again, “I prefer the gray, too. Moreso than the sunny days, when the ocean looks blue.”

He smiled. “Me too. I prefer the gray too.”

He gathered her underneath his chin, and she wrapped her arms around him. He held her for a long moment, moved his nose to her hair, that scent of the ocean they loved so much mixing with the scent of whatever shampoo she used. He closed his eyes.

“Are you all right?” he asked after some time, pulling back to look at her and smooth her hair.

“I acted very silly just now, didn’t I?” she asked, a small smile.

“‘Silly’ is not quite the word I’d use.”

She nodded, and nodded again. “I was flustered. From before, with our talk of Greyson.”

“He hurt you,” Gold said simply.

Belle’s eyes widened and her mouth opened to speak, but said nothing.

“It’s been ten years, Belle. It’s okay. You can say it.”

“He . . . he hurt me.”

Gold nodded.

The statement had a funny transformation on Belle, her eyes darting again, and then a quick look out to the sea, as if perhaps permission for her feelings was somewhere out there.

When she turned back to him, she seemed to have remembered the last five minutes.

“I’m sorry. Oh Lachlan, the things I said . . .”

“The thing you said. You did warn me that confrontation wasn’t your forte. Oh Belle, I’m surprised you wanted to go there in at all.”

“I’m sorry,” she said again.

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Thank you, Belle.”

She smiled again, tried to speak, but could only manage his name. “Lachlan,” she said, a little moan.

The gulls seemed further away, now, everything seemed further away. Leroy, Jeff, Greyson - all of them further away the longer he held her. His arms around her, the railing, and the sea.

“We need to get more groceries,” he said.

“Oh?”

“You broke your eggs.”

“Oh,” she said, looking down where her bags sat sad on the docks. “Yes. Yes, I did.”

“And I’ll need to pick up ingredients, for tonight. For dinner.”

Her cheeks regained their color, finally, red of something sweet rather than something ashamed. “You’re still going to hold me to that? After I embarrassed you so terribly?”

“Especially after that.” 

She sniffed, but her smile held. “You’re certain?”

He smiled back, touched her lovely red blooms with his thumbs, and by God, he wanted to kiss her. “Of course I am. We have a towel to discuss, don’t we?”