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There was a knock at his door, and it was a Sunday night, and that wasn’t the time he usually received a knock at his door.

“Hello, Mr. Gold.”

“Miss French.”

She stood before him silhouetted by the setting sun, pinks and purples haloing her in such a way that made him squint. The whole thing took him off guard for a second, made him dumb and static while summer heat managed to sneak into his home from her sudden appearance at his door.

“May I come in?”

Belle French lived two doors down in a Victorian nearly as large as his own, hers a forest green to his salmon. She was the town librarian who’d married her sweetheart young but lost him ten years ago, a decade short of when he’d lost his own wife. He knew how her husband died but she probably didn’t know how Milah had gone.

Belle looked like she had something very important to say, and there was no reason to say no, so he didn’t. She stepped into his foyer, then his parlor, oohing and aweing at various trinkets and paintings he had on display, focusing on one with a black farmhouse cast in shadow from a thunderstorm up above. She asked about it, he answered, and then they were quiet. He thought of asking, Well What Is It You Want? because that was the easy and natural Mr. Gold that he knew best. But it would be better to hear it from her. Better and more interesting, unprovoked, in whatever incarnation she had it prepared.

He flexed his fingers over his cane, watching as she stood still while hugging one elbow. She wore a floral dress with a sweetheart neckline, dipping and hugging in the right places so her curves spelled the word pretty. Her hair hung in curls about her shoulders and hid her face when she looked down. His hair hung too, wisping around his neck, long for a man his style, brushing the collar of his shirt. He watched as the hand at her elbow pinched the skin, her eyes squinting, then she turned to face him.

“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here,” she said.

“Well. I didn’t think you came by to admire my paintings.”

She laughed, a single exhale through the nose. “No, I have a, a kind of proposal.”

“Proposal,” he said.

“Not marriage,” she smiled.

“That would definitely be shocking.”

“This might be shocking too,” she said, looking down, that hair covering her face. When she looked up at him again she breathed in such a way that seemed to involve courage drug up from the bottom of the feet.

“I’m listening,” he said. “Shock me.”

“I was wondering if you would consider sleeping with me sometimes, at night, in my bed.”

He blinked.

“Not sex,” she said.

“I didn’t think that.”

“We’re both alone. We’ve both been alone for a long time, years. I’ve been without Greyson for nearly ten, and I know you lost your wife far before that. And, well, I’m lonely. I thought you might be lonely too, and it would be good if we could sleep at night, together.”

He stared at her, curious. He’d never known Miss French to be the type to pull pranks. They had a good relationship; chats at the library, chats at his shop, chats at whatever silly social function Mayor Mills managed to whip up for the town. But pranks, no. They were too old for that, surely?

“The nights are the worst, don’t you think?” she said, edging closer. “I end up reading too much and too long and feel groggy the next day. I think I could sleep again if someone were with me.”

He nodded to indicate he was following, but couldn’t quite respond.

“Have I shocked you?” she asked.

“I suppose you have.”

“That’s nice,” she said, “to shock someone. Can’t remember the last time I did that.”

He licked his lips, looked down. “You’re assuming a lot, Miss French.”

She frowned, retreating. Her hand reached up to grab her elbow again. “Oh?”

“That I’m lonely. That I don’t sleep well.”

She sighed. That single exhale again, no laugh. “Am I wrong?”

He smiled, still looking at the floor. “Only a little. Let’s be very clear. You want me to share your bed?”

“ . . . yes. I want . . . someone to talk to in the night. I miss that. Someone to help keep the bed warm. The closeness, the dark. You know, companionable. Would you like that? With me?”

“Yes,” he said.

Her face lit up. “So,”

“So,” he interrupted, “I’d like some time to think it over.”

Her mouth hung open, mid sentence. “Of course,” she said.

She made her way to his door, paintings and trinkets no longer provoking awe or questions. “Just, well, call me when you have your answer. So I’ll know if I should expect you.”

He bid her good night. Then, holding the door open, “When would you want to start?”

She turned back around. “Whenever. This week.”

She left. He watched her walk down the street, moonlight catching in her hair, purples and pinks gone. Just a bleak black she’d disappear into after leaving the pools of the streetlights. Bobbing out and in again, light, dark, light. The moon accompanying her, keeping that shine on her hair.

He turned back around, not bothering to watch the door close behind him. Looking forward, he saw his night ahead of him: a quick look through tomorrow’s documents, a tallying of inventory, some flicks of a red pen, some sorting of shipments, a check for deliveries, who was late, who was on time, who needed help, who needed more of the calendar, who stared at the wall each night, who curled up alone in cold sheets, who hollowed out their memories, who curled deep into themselves, who desperately needed a drink.

He called an hour later.

“I’ll do it,” he said. “I’d like to.”

“I’m glad,” she said, and he could hear the joy in her voice. Funny. Funny thing.

“When do you want to start?” he asked again.

“How about tomorrow?”

“That sounds good. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

They hung up, and when he looked down at his hands, they were shaking.

He was being stupid again, he knew. Just looking down at his palms he could see the old marks he was about to reopen, ready to pour out blood and pretend his heart wasn’t the thing pumping it out.

Chapter Text

The next day he called three times.

“What time should I come?” he asked on the first.

“Well, when do you normally go to bed?” she asked.

But he didn’t normally go to bed, he normally lost count of memories and tumblers on his leather armchair before disappearing into sleep and then eventually trudging up to bed an hour or so after that had been completed. Tonight he could skip the bad memories and leather armchair and just head straight to Belle’s.

“10 o’clock ought to be good,” she said.

“What should I bring?” he asked on the second call.

“Your pajamas, unless you sleep naked.”

He laughed. Bless her for making this easy.

“A toothbrush, too, might be nice,” she said. “I’ve got the toothpaste but no extra equipment. Bring whatever else consists of your bed prep routine.”

“So, whiskey, scotch, and bourbon?”

She laughed again, and it became all the easier.

Why me? he wanted to ask on the third time, but instead asked, “Are you sure?”

“Yes. Because you're kind,” she said, hearing the real question anyway.

But I’m not, he thought. She’d already hung up.  

More questions and more calls buzzed in his head, but he could only manage the three. He kept second guessing the situation, especially the part about going to her house. There was something vulnerable in that, both on his end and hers, and he’d feel a lot safer if this all happened in his own bed. But she’d requested hers, and he was respectful enough to honor her that, if not terribly curious.

He packed a briefcase with pajamas, toothbrush, toothpaste, and other mundane toiletries per her request. He nearly brought a book, until he remembered he’d be at a librarian’s house. Then he remembered he’d be at a beautiful woman’s house, Belle French! That alone would keep him from being able to read anything beyond a yard sign.

When 9:30 p.m. rolled around, his skin was so itchy and his breath so short that he put on his jacket, grabbed his cane, and headed out the door. The walk, only two doors down, was illuminated by a few windows and figures at kitchen sinks and living room chairs and he thought of the people who occupied each home, and if they saw him, and if they’d see him again in the morning, and gasp, and think terrible things.

He got to her home, forest green with black accents, a porch wider than his, a welcoming wreath, a doormat with the image of a key. It all cried with openness and invitation, and when he raised his hand to the door he held it there for a moment before knocking.

No one came for a long time. Her lights were on, he could see. A car drove by, slower than he liked, and he wondered if more eyes had seen him, thinking more terrible things.

“You’re early,” she smiled, when she finally opened the door.

He smiled in return, a smirk, really, half of his mouth turned up.

“Come in,” she said, warmth and more of that invitation. “I’m just cleaning up dinner. Are you hungry?”

“No,” he said, harsh, and he blinked. He let his hand whisper against the door, and tried to recover. ”I should have brought something,” he said. “Wine, or that scotch I mentioned.”

She shook her head no, then looked down. “But you did bring something. A briefcase?”

“Pajamas,” he explained.

“In a briefcase?” she said, nearly laughing.

He thought about telling her it looked less suspicious! but he simply nodded.

“Good,” she said. “It means you’ve committed.”

He asked if he could help her clean up, but as only a plate and glass remained the work was all but a minute.

“Late dinner,” he remarked.

“No one to keep a schedule for but myself,” she said, and he saw that her meal had consisted of little else but a sandwich.

“Let’s have a drink,” she said. “I have some wine. You can bring something next time, if you’d like.”

Next time, he thought.

She grabbed two glasses, and poured while he let his cane rest against her counter. They drank in the kitchen, standing, side by side.  

“Your home is lovely,” he said, thinking of small talk, and how, if they did this, and kept doing this, it would move on to big, big talk.

They finished their glasses, and she asked if he wanted more. He declined, though he wanted more, lots more.

“What do you normally do before you go to bed?” she asked.

Tumbler, leather arm chair, he thought. “Read,” he said.

“I read, too. But tonight, I’d like to talk.”

“About what?” he asked.

“It’ll come,” she said, hugging her elbows again. “Shall we get changed?”

“Sure.” He wanted to say more, but he felt his hands shaking again, so he placed them behind his back.

There was that weird, brimming feeling he normally had - the need to be clever, to gain the upperhand, see how he could twist the situation in his favor - but he was already here, right where he wanted, and she was playing no cards, so why was he so concerned with a deck?

“Let me show you around,” she said. “So you can sneak out later when you decide this is a bad idea.”

He laughed, and the shaking in his hands eased.

“I know you know the home,” Belle said, “I just wanted to show you what room was what, since we moved in.”

That’d been twelve years ago. It was a brief tour. Kitchen, dining, parlor, bathroom. Bedroom, bedroom, second bath. All familiar, and decorated in greens and blues. Then the master. A large four poster bed, and he swallowed. It was all very real, now.

They stood in the hallway, and she turned off the lights, and only the moon peeked in through a window now, illuminating them in a small silver square.

“I’ll change in here,” she said, motioning to the bedroom, her other hand out to indicate the direction of his own privacy. He nodded, and headed to the second bath, as her small hand had suggested.

“I’ll meet you in bed,” he said, jarring himself with the phrase.

He set his briefcase awkwardly on the toilet, closed the door. He changed, folded his suit neatly, hung what needed to be hung, tried not to let his confusion overtake him again, brushed his teeth, and opened the door. Back up in her room, the main lights had been extinguished for the small bedside lamps, the arms of the four poster casting shadows towards his feet, just nearly reaching him. Her window was slightly ajar, allowing a cool breeze to pass through the room.

He could see Belle in the darkness, in the bed, arms exposed in a lovely nightgown, half under the covers with the other side open in invitation for him to join. She looked at him expectantly, and he wondered if she’d pat the spot next to her. She didn’t, and he ran a hand over his chest, feeling strange and exposed at being seen so plainly in his pajamas. They were nice, as nice as his suits were, as far as pajamas went. But he still avoided her eyes as he slid into the covers and pulled them up, focusing instead on the cool of the sheets, so similar to the cool of his. He focused on their smell, something rosey and woody.

She lay down, and he followed suit, both of them pulling the covers up to their chins. She turned on her side to face him, chestnut hair pooling around her.

“What now?” he asked.

“We talk,” she said.

He waited for her to start.

“Have a good day?” she asked. “Terrorizing the town?”

“Terrorizing?” he repeated. “Is that what you think of me?”

“Well, did you?”

“Of course I did,” he said, huffing out a laugh.

“It’s rent day, right?”

He nodded.

“Rent day,” she said, soft. “I remember rent day.”

Life insurance had bought her her home, from his name to hers. He’d sold it to her, fresh young widow that she was.

“Tell me what you’re thinking, feeling,” she said. “If you’re uncomfortable, this won’t be any fun.”

He smiled, allowing it to take up both corners of his mouth, and stared at the ceiling. “I remember renting you this house, you and Greyson.” Her broad and handsome black-haired husband next to a terribly petite wife. A towering brute, Gold had ignored him in favor of Belle, maintaining eye contact with her and only bothering with Greyson if his oafish statements warranted correction. “He didn’t want to move in here.”

“He only considered this place because he knew I liked it. Said old homes needed a lot of work, and would I be up for that?”

“You were,” he said.

“There wasn’t much to do. You’d made it all very state of the art, while keeping what could be left authentic, authentic. You’re very good at that. And you were always there if I needed anything. A good landlord.”

He crooked his eyebrows at her. “Flattering me already?”

“It’s good to flatter your bedmate,” she laughed.

They were quiet again, and he finally turned to face her.

“What big eyes you have,” she said.

He scrunched them, trying to place the fairy tale.

“Are you the big bad wolf?” he asked. “That’s lured me here?”

“It’s the wolf who had the big eyes,” she said.

“And what of them?”

“You look uncertain. Very uncertain.”

He scoffed, but God, she was correct. “So do you.”

“I am, I guess,” she said. “But this is nice, isn’t it?”

He licked his lips, not sure how to respond. “It’s nice . . . feeling the dip in the bed next to me.”

“The warmth there,” she agreed.

“Yes,” he said, finally feeling it, realizing the cool of the sheets had already dissipated. “The warmth.”

“I hope you don’t mind that I like the window open. I like the juxtaposition; the cool breeze and the warm bed.”

He hummed in agreement, though it was something he’d never actually tried before. It felt nice because it was a summer evening, but if they were still doing this come winter, he wasn’t so sure that breeze would do anything but bite his flesh.

He shifted restlessly, limbs moving but never really changing position. When he looked at her, he tried to keep his eyes trained on her face, and away from her line of cleavage that pouted every time she nestled her arms closer around herself.

“When I asked you if you were sure about this,” he said, “you said yes, and that it was because I was kind.”

“Yes,” she said.

“You know I’m not kind.”

“You are. You’re here, aren’t you? You’re a fair man. I know that, in as long as I’ve known you.”

He shook his head. “Fair is not necessarily kind.”

“No,” she said, with some force. “It is. It really is.”

“Why do you say that?”

“When Greyson died,” she started, chewing on her lip, finding her courage after staring at a bit of fuzz on the sheets, “you were the only one who treated me the same. You didn’t handle me with kid gloves. You gave me . . . normal, fair, human treatment. That was a kindness, do you see? You weren’t afraid of the widow I suddenly was, you didn’t try to offer anything you didn’t really feel. You didn’t overstep, and you didn’t disappear. It was . . . a small thing, on your part, but it helped so much. Made me feel normal. It was kind. You were kind.”

He nodded, slowly, focusing on that same bit of fuzz that caught her attention earlier. He didn’t agree that any of it made him kind, but he could understand her meaning.

“When Milah died,” he started, slowly, after a long moment, “that’s all I wanted. Normalcy. But, that normalcy fled far before she died. It went away the moment she got sick.”

Belle nodded, now. “I’d heard . . . she got sick.” Her mouth remained open to ask more, but she didn’t, jaw suspended in hesitation.

“Did your normal ever return?” she said, instead of whatever other worm-inducing questions she could have asked.

“No,” he said. “Does it ever?”

“No,” she said, quiet, and he’d done it again, snapped unnecessarily.

He licked his lips, trying again. “I just . . . had to create a new normal. But,” and should he say it? “You’ve upended that. None of this is normal.”

She licked her lips now, switching between a smile and frown. “Are you bitter that I asked you here, then? You gave me normal, but I’ve taken yours?”

“No,” he said, a soft smile there. “But . . . I’m glad I didn’t know Greyson very well.”

“Why?”

“He probably wouldn’t like me sleeping next to his wife, in the house he didn’t really want.”

She chuckled. “Well, I never knew Milah. Would she have minded?”

“No,” he said, not bothering to explain.

They stared at each other a while, her starting it, and it unnerved him at first but eventually he let the calm in her expression ease his own nerves. He took advantage, studying her where she studied him. Her lips and eyes and cleavage started to swirl together, as his eyes became heavy, as his trepidation and prickliness began to give way to the simple sensation of being sleepy.

“I’m going to turn off the lights now,” she said, voice quiet, so quiet. His study had become so focused he had likely just read her lips.

She turned over to extinguish her lamp, and he maneuvered to do the same. She rolled back on her side again to face him, so he faced her. Her eyes didn’t close, but they didn’t look at him anymore.

Her hand rest between them, outstretched further than his own from where he’d placed his hands from his body, and he wondered if she knew how close to him she was, or if the general comfort she felt in her own bed had inspired the position.

“Do we touch?” he asked, a whisper he wondered if she could even hear.

“If you want,” she said, her own whisper, but made no move towards him, and he none towards her, and in moments he heard her breathing slow, and he closed his eyes, and fell asleep, warmth all around him and a cool breeze skimming his forehead.

Chapter Text

He rose early the next morning, bewildered when he was met with an unfamiliar ceiling. Out of the corner of his eye a pair of pale shoulders and chestnut curls rose and fell to a steady, silent beat.

Oh, he thought.

He went to the bathroom and relieved himself, then stood in her bedroom, watching the sun inch its way into the room, the color taking over her greens and blues. There were a lot of dried flowers in here, he noticed, hanging from the ceiling in pretty bunches near the window. Their shadows cast themselves jagged across Belle’s sleeping figure, only she wasn’t sleeping anymore. She was turning over in bed, opening her eyes, and blinking herself awake, watching him standing there.

She made no motion to rise, just looked at him, probably trying to place his purpose in her room among her greens and blues. He fit in; his pajamas were dark green, after all.

“Did you sleep well?” he asked. “Was it better?”

“Yes,” she said, voice creaky and groggy, and there was something sweet in that. “Did you?”

“I,” he said, not finishing.

“I felt you wake up a few times.”

“It’s just a new environment,” he reasoned.

He changed back into the suit he’d worn yesterday, realizing he hadn’t quite thought this through. He’d been too eager to get over here; hadn’t planned past his pajamas. When his briefcase was packed up again he stood and stared at himself in the mirror. What do I see? he thought. Dark suit, gray shirt, gray tie, all familiar, but am I different? Was this different than sleeping next to Milah?

He headed back into the room, where Belle was sitting up in bed, looking out the window with all those flower bunches. Her shoulders were so small and her hair so careless about them.

“I’m headed out now,” he said.

She smiled at him, nodded.

“I’ll see you,” he said.

“Will you?” she said, her hand fiddling with the bedspread.

“Yes.”

He walked home, the morning crisp despite the summer month, and didn’t look towards any of the windows facing him with their questions and raised eyebrows. He felt dazed as he approached his house. He showered, shaved, put on a new suit. Black this time, black shirt, red tie . . . no, blue tie, dark blue. His blood felt hot, and he was having trouble walking steady, moving steady, and he kept seeing pale shoulders and chestnut hair behind his eyelids; freshly woken, freshly rumpled.

He’d woken up a lot in the night, yes, he remembered. His sleep had been fitful, eyes opening to something black and dry, was it that open window, or the pale figure beside him?

He opened his shop, ran about his usual business, that hot feeling in his blood never ceasing. You’re getting ahead of yourself, he admonished, trying to reel in the thoughts of chestnut and white, but soon enough he knew that hot feeling was something else entirely, the reason for his fitful sleep more practical than an existential crisis.

By that afternoon he was all congestion and cough. He closed up the shop early and headed home.

He called her. “I won’t be coming tonight. I’m sick.”

“I understand,” she said, and the words hollowed inside his ear.

He stayed home, didn’t open up the shop the next two days. He felt weak and strange, and angry, but that last part wasn’t new.

On the third day, there was a knock. And there wasn’t usually a knock.

“Biss French,” he said through a stuffed nose.

“You are sick,” she said, face falling.

“Thought I was lying?”

“And trying to get out of sleeping with me again? Yes.”

He let her in, her heels clacking a grateful echo through his home, but he wouldn’t admit that. Instead he turned around, watching as her skirt graced the tops of her knees, her thin sweater trying to hide her form. He blinked, and blinked again.

She followed him as he entered the kitchen, looking around while he warned her that he might still be contagious. She didn’t care.

“I went to your shop, thinking I’d give you a scolding for being too cowardly to just tell me you didn’t like it and didn’t want to do it anymore.”

“If I didn’t like it, I’d have told you,” he said.

She still cast him a skeptic eye. “When you weren’t at your shop, I worried, and headed here.”

“Worried? Or excited to raise that lilt at me?”

It was her turn to blink, and she watched as he sniffed, placed his hands in his pockets.

"You know what I love about you?" she said, her tone changing.

“What?" he said, and she shouldn't throw that word around, and he shouldn't perk up at it.

"You're so prickly. Bristly. A regular grump. A grizzly bear."

He scowled, having expected something better, and that was foolish of him. "Doesn't sound like anything to love."

"It's a good, honest reaction. Genuine."

"Genuinely awful, I'm sure."

“You should let me sleep here tonight,” she said.

“Oh?” he said, eyes at her neck. Her clavicle was lovely.

“Yeah. Take care of you,” she plopped her purse on the counter. “I’m going to make you soup. What have you got in here? You know what, nevermind, what you don’t have I’ll just grab from my place.”

“You’re assuming again,” he started, but a coughing fit took him.

“Go upstairs,” she said, ignoring his protests. “Your bedroom is upstairs, yes? Lay down, I’ll have everything ready soon.”

“That,” he started, “that’s all well and good, soup and all that, but you’ll get sick too. You don’t want to sleep with me.”

“Funny,” she said, smiling at him. “But I do. Now, look me in the eye and tell me you don’t want me to stay. That I’m a ninny, that I’m intrusive, that I should go.”

Her looked her in the eye, said nothing.

“Last chance,” she said.

He said nothing.

She nodded, hiding a smile.

After a brief rummage through his kitchen, she decided his wares were inadequate, and headed out the door, returning about an hour later with a small duffle and a paper sack from Granny’s.

“Work hard making that soup, did you?” he asked with a smirk.

“I decided Granny’s chicken soup would be better than anything I could come up with. Get back in bed, I’ll go get dressed and get a tray ready.”

He didn’t have to ask what was in her duffle, more practical than his briefcase, as she entered the room later in her dark blue nightdress and a tray with steaming soup on it. God, her legs, how had he not noticed them before? Because she’d been in bed the whole time, last time, that’s why. Pale pretty things, long and swishing as she approached him.

“Thank you,” he said, sniffing. “This is very, no one’s ever … thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she said, quiet.

He tried very hard to focus on the soup. She’d also brought him some medicine, and some water. She helped him settle with the tray, then made herself cozy opposite him on the bed.

“I really was worried, you know,” she said.

“That I didn’t want to come back?”

She nodded. “I felt embarrassed. Like you’d agreed for only the one time, always intending it to just be one night to humor me. Or that it had been too strange, and you’d changed your mind, and you were letting me down gently.”

He ran his spoon around in his soup, taking in the savory fragrance, grateful for her generosity. “I did worry, on my part, too,” he said, “that you didn’t like it. When I called to say I wasn’t coming, you seemed . . . quite fine with it.”

She gave him a half smile. “I definitely wasn’t.”

They sat in silence for a bit, him eating his soup, her ignoring any slurping sounds he made, or sniffles, or coughs. When he glanced at her he saw her feet, tiny and small on his bed, nails painted a red so deep they were nearly black. Pretty things, her nails. He tried to keep his eyes to her feet, and not let them travel up any pale, pretty paths.

“Imagine me,” she said, hands cradling her head, “walking over here, hugging myself to build up the confidence to yell at Mr. Gold. Hugging my sweater tight around me like I was cold. I wasn’t cold. It’s summer. I was just the only one I had to give me the confidence to yell at you.”

He chuckled, a funny sounding effort that consisted of more wheezes than he’d like. “I’d like to see that. You yelling at me. I bet it’s rather fetching.”

She smiled, positively beamed, but faced it towards the ceiling.

“Did anyone see you come?” he asked.

She was quiet. “Do you worry about that?”

He didn’t answer, not really, just started to mumble something that never really became words. When he looked at her, her gaze was steady, and he shut up, focused instead on how comfortable she looked in his bed, and the sight made something leap in his chest.

“We don’t have to talk too much, tonight,” she said. “You need your rest.”

“Ah,” he said. “But I need to give you a tour.”

She smiled at him again, stretched, sat up. “I’ll give myself a tour. I love these old homes, don’t you?”

“Yes. I own several.”

“This whole block?” she teased.

“No, just several throughout town. When I first moved here I was in Boston. Didn’t care for it much. Wanted a place that reminded me of home.”

“Scotland.”

“Aye. Glasgow.”

“But isn’t Boston more like Glasgow than Storybrooke?”

“Well, aye, but my aunts’ house, where I lived after my father left, it was more like this. Just felt better.”

She nodded, and he could see that she wanted to push for more, maybe more on his aunts, or his father, or Glasgow, or the homes and property he owned, but she didn’t. We’ll ease into it, she had said. It’ll come, she had said. Perhaps she wanted just a little bit each night, just enough to make these nights many instead of few.

“Give yourself a tour,” he said. “See if you can find the secret passage.”

She laughed. “ The? There’s only one?”

“Only one. Leads from a guest bedroom to my office. Though I’d prefer you not to poke around in there.”

She stared, her smile wavering a bit. “Are you being serious?

“Of course I am.”

“That you have a secret passage? That I can look for it?”

“Of course,” he repeated.

She got up, looked to the door, then stood facing him. “You’re being serious?” she said again.

“Mm hmm,” he said, slurping up some more soup.

She bit her lip, left the room, didn’t return for twenty minutes. Not that he was counting. But God, what was he thinking? Was this his way of flirting, letting her wander his home? Had this sickness rendered him insane? He waited for the bitterness to set in, the anger, the regret, but it didn't come. That lightness of feeling from his spontaneity remained, small smile in place, small sips of his soup.

When she returned, her arms were folded. “I think you were pulling my leg.”

He smiled, started biting his lip. Did she have to mention her leg?

“That was very irresponsible of you,” she said. “You let me wander your home, poke around where I shouldn’t. Look for something that doesn’t even exist.”

“Or you just couldn’t find it.”

She shook her head. “You’re ridiculous.” But she walked over to his side, retrieved his tray, tidied up the mess and the dishes.

“Thank you,” he said again, and she nodded.

It was nice, this. Strange. Having someone care for him. If the time came, he’d care for her.

She returned again, arms unfolded this time. “It’s raining outside.”

Sure enough, he could hear a gentle patter from the roof above. A light rain, not the summer storms they could expect later in the season. It was a lovely sound, one they listened to together for a moment, him on the bed, she in the doorway, until a coughing fit took him again. She rushed over to him, held his elbow.

“I think, I think I got you sick,” she whispered.

“No,” he said. “No, you weren’t sick when I came.”

“My window,” she said. “The one I left open.”

“Pish,” he said, rising from bed. She stepped back, watching as he headed to his own window, opening it up with some difficulty since it hadn’t been opened in ages. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d let fresh air in, much less the summer rain.

He held out his hand, letting the moisture gather, then moved back inside, closing the window. He walked over to Belle and hovered his hand in the air, both of them staring at it like a firecracker waiting to go off. He moved it forward, huffed a laugh in his hesitation, then touched her cheek with his rain soaked hand.

“There,” he said. “Now you can get sick.”

“I don’t think it works that way,” she laughed, face reddening prettily. She touched her cheek where he’d dropped the rain, and watched his hand in its retreat, seeming to admire his fingers, then flicking her eyes up to the curve of his jaw.

He smiled, something real this time, and easy. No grizzly, he thought.

“Lachlan,” he said.

“What?”

“My name. It’s Lachlan.”

“Lachlan,” she repeated, smiling, drowsy. “I know. I remember it from the paperwork.”

“Aye,” he said, remembering, yes, when he’d sold her her house. “Why haven’t you been using it?”

“I didn’t know if you wanted me to.”

“I do. I want you to.”

They stood, her wet cheek, his wet hand, and she laughed again, for no particular reason. He crawled back into bed, and she joined him under the covers. They didn’t touch again, though his elbow burned from where she’d held him earlier, and the hand that had touched her. He didn’t know it, but her cheek burned too.

Chapter Text

He felt significantly better the next morning, enough to enjoy coffee with her and open the shop. He was able to regain his focus, even if his blood still ran hot. He was sure, this time, it was for the reason he’d originally mistaken it for.

On his way to her house that night, a car approached slowly again. It agitated him, and he thought he could make out the figure inside, and he gave them a scowl, pounding his cane a little harder into the ground with each step he took. When the car was out of sight, he stilled on the sidewalk, staring after the direction it’d gone in. He looked ahead down his path, and decided to deter toward the alley, arriving in short time at Belle’s back door.

She looked confused when she answered his knock. “Why are you back here?”

His eyes shifted uncomfortably.

“I don’t care what people think,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about that.”

“You say that now,” he said, thinking of the figure in the car, in the dark, “but they will talk, and you may find yourself caring after all.”

“Do you care? Are you embarrassed to be here?”

“No,” he said, honestly, “just worried for your sake. You came to me in good faith. Don’t want my reputation to taint you.”

“Then don’t come to the back door,” she said. “That makes it seem like what we’re doing is dirty.”

She let him in, took the wine bottle he forgot he was carrying and poured them each a glass. They drank in a few moments of silence, each staring at the floor, each angry. When he chanced a look at her, he noted she was wearing leggings, and an oversized sweater that, like her thin sweater from before, did little to hide her curves from him. A thick braid fell across her shoulder. He coughed, and looked away.

“I knew what I was doing when I asked you to do this,” she said. “I knew who I was asking. Besides, at this point, you’ve probably already been seen, and it doesn’t matter whether you come in the back or front.” 

“You have to allow me to spare you, Belle. For all your talk of apathy, you haven’t been questioned yet. You can’t tell me you don’t care when you don’t even know what it is you don’t care about.”

“So enlighten me. You skin children for their pelts?”

His eyes blinked.

“A quip,” she said.

“Oddly specific.”

She ignored him. “Look, aside from being a strict landlord, I can’t think of any other vicious gossip in town I should allow to sway my opinion of you. My associating with you. So if you’re worried about something coming up, might as well bring it up now.”

He shook his head. “Milah and I . . . people take sides, when a couple divorce. No one was on mine. Be prepared to lose friends, Belle.”

She opened her mouth, but hesitated, thinking. “But . . . I thought you didn’t divorce?”

He opened his mouth, ready to explain. But the words never made it past his airways, a cloud choking him, memories expanding in his lungs, crowded and unwanted.

She reached out and placed a hand on his chest, and he looked down, stared at her fingers.

“I invited you here, Lachlan, not them,” she said. “When you talk like that, when you get worried like that, you’re letting them in too. Don’t do that.”

She moved away, sniffing, and reached for a tissue. He recognized the symptoms.

“I told you you’d get sick,” he said.

“It’s barely a sniffle,” she waved, and he studied her, ready to put a hand to her cheek, to her forehead, but didn’t. He wasn’t as brave as she.

“Let me get the soup this time,” he said.

“Already got some,” she smiled sadly, and he saw her discarded Granny’s bag on the counter, her finished soup bowl.

“Well. At least let me tuck you in tonight.”

They readied themselves for bed, a somber walk up the stairs, a separation from one bath to another, and he wondered if she ever avoided her reflection the way he carefully avoided his. As before, when he made his way to her room, she was already in bed, his side of the covers open and waiting for him. It was a simple gesture, but it was so open , he sighed a breath of gratitude.

Once he joined her under the covers, they turned to face each other.

“I was thinking,” he said, “that I’d keep a pair of pajamas and toiletries here.”

“Save wear and tear on that briefcase, yeah?”

“Exactly,” he smiled.

“You can keep your things in the downstairs bath.”

“All right. I was also thinking you could keep a pair of pajamas at my place,” he said.

“Oh?” she said. “You want to switcheroo again?”

“Yes, but don’t ever call it that.”

She laughed. “I’m glad. That you want to keep your things here, and my things there. It means you want to keep doing this.”

“Of course I want to keep doing this. Why do you say that?”

“Because of how uncomfortable you were earlier. About whether or not people know. They’re going to know, if they don’t already. We can’t avoid it.”

He sighed. “I know. I just. Yes . I want to keep doing this. I need this.”

“Need this?”

“Yes,” he said, and she didn’t prod for more.

They sat in silence again, for a very long time, and if it weren't for his occasional glances he'd wonder if she were already asleep. He noticed the breeze in her room was gone. He was about to sit up and check the window, but she spoke, reaching for her lamp.

“Good night, Lachlan.”

“No. Wait, not yet,” he said.

“Not yet?”

“I’m not ready to sleep.”

“Okay.”

He licked his lips. “Lachlan. No one’s called me that, well, since Milah.”

“You . . . can we talk about her? Milah?”

“She cheated on me,” he blurted.

Belle blinked.

If that cloud were ever going to leave his lungs, now was the time.

“I don’t know what you’ve heard. Cancer took her, and that was a long, terrible battle. A real dragon. But it was especially terrible because of what we’d come to mean to one another. It wasn’t pretty. None of it.”

He licked his lips, closed his eyes, but continued. “When I worry about people finding out about this, about us, I don’t want . . . I don’t want them talking about us the way they did about me and Milah. It all went to shite, very quickly, not just in our house, in our bed , but everywhere outside of it, too.”

Belle nodded, swallowed, bit her lip. “Did it start bad outside first, then move its way in? Is that why you’re worried?”

“Oh, oh no. The whole thing had started rotting on the inside first. But it was much worse when that rot got out everywhere, all over everything. When people could comment on it.”

To her embarrassment, Belle started coughing. So much so that she had to sit up a moment, and Gold sat up with her, drew up the courage to rub her back. Even circles against the ridge of her spine, but they did little to help. He rose from bed, rushed downstairs to get her a glass of water, and she thanked him upon his return, taking steady, even gulps.

Throat finally calm, she sniffed. “I’m sorry.”

“S’all right. Pretty sure I’m the one who got you sick, now.”

“No, I mean, about Milah. I’m sorry.”

He nodded, lifted the covers and sank back into the sheets.

“Greyson cheated on me too,” she blurted, once he was settled.

Gold raised his eyebrows. “What?”

“Well. Not. Not explicitly. He never, he never physically cheated on me. But in his heart he did. It’s. Well, it was very complicated, all of it, but, and this is a very evil part of me speaking . . . it was a relief, when he died. Not just for me. God, that’s the evil part . . . that I was relieved. But, I think he must have been too. The way he was acting, I think he wanted . . . God, am I making sense?”

Yes, yes she was, and how kind of her to release her own cloud. It was easier like this, when they could pollute the air together, all the dark thoughts that hurt, hurt so much.

“Yes. The evil part of me was relieved too. When Milah went. She, too, I think, found relief.”

“Do you think there’s an afterlife?” she asked, quirking her brow in such a way.

He laughed then, something close to a guffaw, breaking all the tension that had huddled around them. “Oh, I don’t know. Part of me wants to think so, part of me wants nothing of the kind.”

She laughed, too, and they huddled in their pillows, bed shaking with their laughter.

“No one knew,” she said, soft, quiet, “I don’t think they knew, anyway. That he cheated. I certainly never heard that gossip. And this is a very small town.”

“Very small,” he agreed. “I never heard anything. And I make it a point to know these things.”

She smiled, though it wasn’t quite a gesture of good humor, just something small and resigned to her past. He shifted, and she saw a wince on his face.

“What is it?” she asked, then, feeling stupid, “Oh! Your leg!”

“It’s nothing,” he said, but winced again. “I . . . went down the stairs in a bit of a rush, that’s all.”

“To get me water. While I was busy coughing up a lung.”

“As long as you managed to stuff it back in with the help of that water, I can handle a little leg pain.”

She laughed again, awkwardly reached out as though to touch his leg, pulled her hand back. “What happened? Can I ask? Is it your knee or ankle?”

“Ankle,” he said, then sighed. “We talk about an afterlife, and then my leg starts hurting. Sometimes I think my leg is Milah’s way of haunting me.”

Belle raised her eyebrows.

“It was a car wreck. Got my ankle pinned. Hurt like hell, still does. It didn’t start . . . the change, whatever it was that made Milah decide to cheat, but . . . it’s very easy to associate the two, because that’s right around when I found out. She became more casual about it once I was hurt.”

“Casual?”

“. . . she knew I’d be home, resting my leg. She knew I’d be there, but she still, she still . . .”

Belle was nodding now, saving him the pain of using the words. His grasping only lasted a moment, and then he was looking at her, expression changed.

He spoke slowly. “That surprises me, very much, Belle. That Greyson cheated on you.”

“Thank you,” she said, then offered a sad smile. “That implies you find the very prospect unbelievable.”

“Well, I do. Greyson was the . . . boastful type. He never let an opportunity escape to let everyone know you were his wife.”

“The man doth boast too much, don’t you think?”

He let her words sink in, and though they had both offered a peek into one another’s lives, that uneasiness was still settled about them. Their old ghosts, still stuffy in the air.

She turned off the light, and this time he didn’t protest when she said good night, simply returned the sentiment. They were both facing the ceiling, moon and street lights casting shadows above them, and their eyes drifted closed.

When he woke again, not a few hours later, she was on her side, facing him, silhouette outlined in the dark. Her breathing was the soft rhythm he’d grown accustomed to. He could hear that summer rain again, outside. Perhaps it was the cool, prickling pattern that made him feel so bold, reaching out his hand, ghosting it over her lines, from her face to her arm to her waist and back again. A slow path, never touching, never.

Not yet.

On his third round of her, he gasped to see her eyes open, and was tempted to jolt, to pull his hand back. Instead he held it in place, over her shoulder, and she reached up, grasping his hand, finding it in the dark, and intertwined his fingers with her own. She ran her lips over his knuckles before resting their joined hands on the bed, and closed her eyes again.

Only when their fingers rest twined together against the sheets did his breath return.  

Chapter Text

She always found his hand in the night, after that. It’d rest between them, their joined hands, a small connection that sparked something slow in him, or perhaps that spark had started the night she first asked him for this.

And they talked. Of Scotland, of Australia. He’d mention his son, or Milah, and he’d stutter, and she wouldn’t push. He wouldn’t push when she’d stutter about Greyson. It was nice, dark, companionable, in the night, with Belle.

The companionship started to leak into the mornings. He started indulging in breakfast with her, then walks to work each morning before the heat of the summer day set in. He wondered how far this would expand, if it would bulge before bedtime to include dinner, or trickle into more moments throughout the day at her library or his shop.

He felt good. Very good. The urge to get her a gift impressed itself upon him; something easy, something not immediately recognizable as a gift. Coffee, or a scone; yes, something edible seemed the trick.

He felt good, too good. He was utterly too distracted with his good thoughts to notice the dirty looks he was getting at the diner that morning.

Someone was grumbling behind him, fumbling with thick language and it took him a moment to realize it was directed at him. He turned around, and while the rest of the diner turned away, Leroy was left standing; flinching, but standing.

“What?” Gold asked, rough, irritated.

“What do you, what do you,” Leroy started and stopped.

“Spit it out, man!”

“What do you have on her?”

“What?” Gold blinked, and his voice was weaker this time.

“Whatever you have on her,” Leroy said, “it can’t be worth making her . . . it can’t!”

“It can’t what, dearie?” Gold asked, punctuating his words with anger, growing flush within him, getting hot, getting big.

Leroy took a breath. “Belle’s a good girl. Whatever you have over her, it can’t be worth making her, making you. . . with her!” He stumbled over the words, but there it was, that wicked meaning, those terrible things he’d worried so much about.

Gold looked around him. Every patron was staring at him, ruining that good feeling that had brought him here, making it red, making it black. And then the murmurs started. Words, quiet words.

They were slung at him first from Leroy, then those brave enough to join in. Quiet, at first, then louder, as Leroy gained momentum. Gold reacted, violent and quick, cane crashing down on the counter just near Leroy’s hand. Leroy jerked it back, cowering under Gold’s heady gaze.

“Rumors,” Gold started, “are nasty, vile things. Especially in a town as small as this one.”

He turned to leave, and no one said anything save for Leroy, who he heard complaining loudly that Gold had almost taken his hand off.

And so he made his way down to the library. Giftless, joyless.

“Mr. Gold!” Belle said, brightening upon seeing him, then, lower, “Lachlan,” a sweet secret, and she rounded the circulation desk to greet him and wasn’t she pretty? Wasn't her smile warm and her collarbones delectable and the swirl of her skirt easy? Wouldn’t it have been wonderful to make that smile grow with a tiny cup or paper sack? His empty hand clenched.

Her smile faded as she noticed his agitated state. “What’s wrong?”

“At the diner,” he started, but couldn’t quite finish once he was in front of her. Those damn eyes, so blue, were throwing him.

“Yes? At the diner?” she prodded. There was no one around them at the moment, but Belle turned her head this way and that, and directed him between the shelves. “What happened at the diner?”

He couldn't answer just yet. He was angry, and being with her was muddling that, slowing his momentum. He looked at her, with her chestnut hair, pale skin, bright eyes. A brown, blue, and white vibrancy in front of him, eager to hear him out, eager to help. A picture of youth, despite the years she’d been through. And that youth, that vibrancy - he didn’t feel old, not in his soul, but in this moment he could feel his old body wrapped around him, its history just as keen as its scars and wrinkles and withered ankle. He felt like hitting something again.

“The diner?” Belle offered.

The diner, the diner. “Why did you want this, Belle?” he said, shaking his head. “You're young and lovely. To find a bed partner the natural way wouldn't have been hard. Still wouldn’t be. You could even enjoy the perks it brings. And for god’s sake, why me? Why me?”

She blinked, narrowing her eyes at his outburst, and held her hands up, wanting to touch him, afraid to scare him off. They’d had this conversation before.

“Because you're kind,” she said.

“Me? Kind?” he scoffed, babbling something about his reputation, something about how he was perceived, something this, something that, and her face showed disagreement, and for the first time in their acquaintance he got the feeling she was patiently waiting for him to finish so she could speak her turn.

“Because you're kind,” she emphasized again, those arms still up, ready to catch.

“Belle,” he said, and in he went.

It was the closest they’d ever been, despite the many nights they’d spent together. She didn’t rub her hands up and down his back, but instead bunched his jacket with her fingers, wringing the material, and it gave him the courage to rub his nose into her hair, wrap an arm around her waist, wring at her own fabric.

“At the diner,” she pressed again, mouth at his ear.

“They know, of course,” he said, drawing back but she kept him in the circle of her arms. “They know and they don’t. They think I’m sleeping with you.”

“You are sleeping with me.”

“They think I’m fucking you.”

And, oh, if that didn’t give her a shiver!

“We’re not, obviously,” she said.

“Leroy spearheaded the effort, the rest followed eagerly. And you know what I did? You know what my solution was? Whip ‘em with my cane.”

She raised her eyebrows. “You what, hit someone? Leroy?”

“No, my aim was careful. But I nearly took his hand off!”

“Nearly? You sound disappointed.”

He moved in closer to her. “Why aren't you frightened? Aren't you afraid I'll smack you someday?”

She laughed through her nose. “Are you going to?”

“No.”

She smiled like that answered all his questions.

“You don't understand. I once destroyed everything in my office when I went into a rage. Every trinket, every window.”

She leaned right back into him. “I threw a book once.”

He stared at her, the image of Belle launching one of her precious tomes across a room flashing in his mind. He laughed, despite himself.

“Oh, Lachlan,” she said. “All this worry, and for what?”

“For you, Belle!”

“And how many times do I have to tell you I don’t mind before you’ll listen?”

His mouth gaped open, scoffing at her. “This thing we have . . . it’s ours, and it’s, it’s good, and when they come to me like this . . . Belle, they’ll start coming to you too, don’t you see? Start warning you of-”

“Let’s plan a lunch together,” she said. “At Granny’s.”

He stared.

“Make a show of it. Eat slowly. Order dessert.”

He let out a laugh, short and unsure.

“I chose you, Lachlan. Will you at least allow me to show that to all of them, if you won’t believe it yourself?”

He wasn’t looking at her anymore, just staring off into that distance where all his worries hung, unconsciously squeezing her elbows.

“Lunch,” he said, slowly.

“Go with me?” she asked. “My treat.”

“You . . . don’t have to do that,” he said.

She ignored him. “Wear something flashy. Your checkered shirt, the black and white one. And your pink tie. I’ll wear a raspberry beret.”

“You know my wardrobe surprisingly well.”

“I poked around. That night you were sick,” she said.

“Sneaky!”

“Are you mad?”

“Well. No.”

“So, let’s do it, then,” she smiled. “Go out to lunch. They can see just how terrible the reins you have on me are.”

He felt the way his fingertips dug into her elbows, and the way she didn’t seem to mind. “Stay at my place tonight,” he suddenly insisted.

She raised her eyebrows. “So I can sneak around again?”

He grinned. “Sure.”

“All right,” she said. “But I'm using your front door.”

He pulled out of her hold, a strange smile on his face, and she let him, watching him go.

Her library felt quiet and small, after that. And every patron he passed he eyed with a suspicion equal to their own. Judging them for judging him, he told himself, unsure if that’s what they were even doing. Books passed between hands and the eyes that fell on him seemed dark, but they couldn’t match his own darkness. Still, he felt calmer, and rather than smashing and throwing a tantrum, he imagined wiping the looks away, like steam from a mirror, and seeing Belle underneath. He’d see her tonight, he thought. So soon, tonight, any moment now.

And the night came quick.

He greeted her at his front door, his welcome less enthusiastic than her own had been. He seemed incapable of her same cheer, and she gave him a look, you need to stop worrying so much. He was eager to get to bed, eager to get lying down. But she took her time getting changed, took her time wandering his hallways before padding her way down to his bedroom.

“I was looking around again,” she said, leaning against his doorframe, watching as he stood by the window in his green pajamas. “For that secret passage.”

“Any luck?” he said with a smile, ready for her teasing.

“Not yet,” she said, and he could hear her own smile. He turned to face her, retort ready on his tongue, but she spoke.

“I noticed you have hardly any photographs up.”

“Oh,” he said, mouth dropping to a frown. It took him a moment, but after a sigh, he found the words. “Of course not. Photographs are memories, and I don't particularly like mine.”

She bit her lip, unsure if she was satisfied with his answer. “Well. I saw several of Bae.”

“Yes,” and he managed to return to his smile. “Several of Bae.”

“I remember him. He loved stopping in the library.”

“That he did,” he said, a sweet memory emerging. Following after his boy, up and down the aisles of books. He had limited Bae to a handful of books per week, a number that increased to five, then ten. And he’d annoyed the librarian on several occasions with returning nine one week, eleven the next. Bae had liked to hide his favorites.

“I remember when he moved away,” Belle said carefully.

“College,” he said, though that was the easy answer out. College was the physical location Bae had escaped to, but not the reason he’d loaded his car, slammed his door, and stood facing his father with folded arms.

“He’s all grown up,” Belle said.

“Aye.”

“Where is he now? New York, last I heard?”

“Aye,” he said again. “Trailing after a lass, I believe. Isn’t doing much with that college education he received. Didn’t exactly finish, after all.”

Belle laughed through her nose at that, a soft little noise, and looked down. “He always stops in the library on holiday, to say hello.”

Gold lifted his brows. “Does he? I knew he was fond of morning walks on his visits. Always returns with coffee from Granny’s.”

Belle had also watched Bae walk towards the cemetery every Christmas he visited, but she didn’t mention that.

“Sweet boy you raised,” she said instead.

Gold scoffed. “Nothing to do with me.”

“I don’t believe that for a moment.”

Gold said nothing, only stared ahead, somewhere near Belle’s shoulder. His spot at the window felt far, far away from her spot at the door.

“I saw several photos of Bae,” she said again.

“Yes.”

“But not,”

“Milah,” he said.

“. . . yes.”

He was quiet a moment. “Do you have any photos of Greyson up?”

“A few,” she said, finally moving into the room, sitting down on the bed.

“Any in your room?”

“Yes.”

“Not on a nightstand. I haven’t seen any.”

She looked at him pointedly. “On the bookcase. A small one.”

“To remember?”

“To remember. What else?”

He didn’t answer, just strode over to join her on the bed. She had been looking at him, so exact and direct, but now she looked down at the bedspread.

“Is this the part where we talk about how terrible it all was?” she asked. “That our relationships, those marriages we’re supposed to be grieving over, were actually quite dreadful?”

He watched her fingers twine around his sheets, and reached forward to twine too. “I think that cat left the bag a long time ago.”

Twist, twist. It seemed she had a habit of wringing fabric when confronted with anything remotely uncomfortable. He did the brave thing and took her hand, before he could stop himself, before whatever feeling this was dissipated into self-doubt. Being in his own home and his own bed helped, and he let the familiarity and comfort of his room press him forward.   

“Belle,” he said, “I’d like to invade your privacy a bit.”

Chapter Text

“Belle,” he said, “I’d like to invade your privacy a bit.”

“Oh?” she smiled, but it was shaky. “I invaded you, didn’t I? Go on, invade me.”

“Greyson.”

“Yes?”

“ . . . did you start missing the warmth in your bed before or after he died?”

“Oh. That is an invasion, isn’t it?”

“A big one,” he said, and he rubbed her thumb with his own, and she didn’t pull away. “You don’t have to answer.”

“No. I’d like to.”

But she didn’t answer, so he tried to find another opening, a way to ease her into it. “I remember him. He didn’t seem like the warm, bed-loving type, for talking in the dark.”

“Now you’re assuming,” she smiled. “The mess we were . . . he was that at least. The bed-loving type. He would talk with me, in the dark, even when he wouldn’t touch me.”

He wouldn’t touch you? his mind reeled. Instead, he said, “He died very young.”

“Yes. Very young. Of heart failure, as you know.”

He did know, somewhat. When the news of Belle’s husband reached him, he didn’t think of the man’s proper name, Greyson, Greyson had a heart attack . Instead it was Belle’s husband had a heart attack , the moniker repeating itself over in his mind, turning and turning, until the husband sloughed off, and the possession, and was left simply as Belle. Belle Belle Belle. She was experiencing something sudden, something terrible, Belle! He’d started arranging documents that night, waiting for her to come to him about the house, making sure all was at the ready if she wanted to divest herself of the place. Instead, she’d chosen to buy it.

“It’s very. Very rare. To die like that, that young,” she said. “It was the fourth of July, just after the parade, we were all sitting in those chairs in front of the gazebo, you know? Listening to the bands play,” she paused, lost in memories perhaps, and he waited.

“He slumped against me. At first I thought he was tired, sleeping on my shoulder. I don't know why I thought that. He never did that. It was just so hot that day. My skin was hot and clammy, I remember, and his was too, but in a different way. That’s what made me realize something was wrong. I turned towards him and he nearly fell off my shoulder. I had to catch him. The Nolans helped me. But, it was too late. He was gone.”

She'd been talking so smoothly up to that point, almost like reciting a passage. One she'd perhaps written in her mind to try and make sense of the whole thing, but her voice cracked now and she stood up abruptly, a soft sob leaving her.

“I'm sorry,” she said.

“No. No. Don’t be. Please.”

She was still holding his hand, and she eased herself back onto the bed.

“It’s coming up,” he said. “The anniversary.”

“Yes,” she sniffed. “An easy date to remember. I don’t go to the parade anymore. Or the gazebo.”

He’d probably know that if he ever went to the parade himself. Or the gazebo. He said as much.

“You used to go,” she said, sniffs turning into a watery smile. “I remember, when I was younger. I remember seeing Bae with you.”

There it was, a warm memory he could hold. “He loved the floats - both the ones on wheels going by and the ones they’d sell at the soda stand.”

She giggled at that, and thank goodness he could get that out of her.

“Can I,” he licked his lips, tongue dry but trying, “can I hold you? Please? You keep telling me you chose me for this . . . and if you chose me, well, I’d like to hold you.”

“Yes,” she said, and relief was in her smile.

They got under the covers, and the ease with which they moved into position held a natural familiarity, almost too good, too easy. She fit him perfectly, her back to his chest, his arm curved to hold both her head and his, and he did his best not to bury his face in her neck. Her hair would have to do, but that was no minor thing.

The green of his pajamas seemed to blend with the dark blue of her gown, and he let that easy mixture bring him closer to her, his pelvis snug to her rear. She seemed to melt just as easily as he did, and her sniffing had stopped, and he felt brave again.

“The warmth,” he said, “this warmth . . . when did you start to miss it?”

“Ah,” she said. “Your original question? Did I start missing the warmth before or after he died?”

He nodded, and she felt it along the back of her head.

She sighed. “Before, of course. Before.”

He wanted more, but as she’d eased into frightening topics with him, he’d do so with her. “The anniversary. Do you normally . . . visit him? His gravesite?”

“. . . not every year.”

Nor I, he thought. Not every year.

“It’s strange, when I do. Just plain awful sometimes. The Star-Spangled Banner playing, or fireworks going off.”

“I’ll go with you, this year, if you’d like.”

She was quiet, and he worried he’d overstepped. That he’d been overstepping this whole time.

“I’d like that,” she said, after a moment. “Very much,” she laughed. “Someone to, eh, appreciate the fireworks with. At the cemetery.”

He chuckled with her, the sound alleviating his worry.

“We,” she said. “We can visit Milah too, if you’d like.”

He nodded again, breath coming heavier into her hair. “Yes,” he said, simply.

Her hands moved up to cradle his, and he closed his eyes. “Lachlan . . . can we talk about her?”

He shuddered a sigh, somewhere in her hair. “Yes. You told me,” he said. “ . . . you told me about Greyson. And you asked about the photographs, so. I’d like to tell you about Milah. I’d like to, yes.”

She waited. Counted the breaths against her hair.

There was so much. He had no idea how to begin. “It was a lump in her breast. I felt it before she did.”

But he didn’t want to start there, with her death.

“I’m not sure how long she was seeing her other . . . well. A year, or more. But she stopped coming right home from school, one day. I thought she was just late, grading papers. She did that sometimes, lots of essays to read through. But, then the summer came, and she’d be out a lot. Dropping off Bae a lot. I confronted her, we fought. And then the car wreck, and my ankle . . .”

“And one day she came home with . . . ?”

“Yes. And we fought. And fought. Uglier than before. And the town, they got involved. But then, well, then she wasn’t late anymore. And I don’t know why. I’d . . . I’d been trying to prepare myself for her departure, to prepare Bae, but then, suddenly she was grading papers at home again. Essays, all over the living room.”

He licked his lips, waited a moment before continuing.

“We reconciled, one night. Just fell into it, rushed, passionate. Never spoke, not one word, the whole time. It was . . . wonderful. And terrible. It was like we were kids again, but I was still so mad. She was too, I knew. But it was . . . ah, to be with her like that again. The love we’d had, ah, and I felt it then, I did. But. But I felt it, then, too. The lump. And there it was, her ending. Our ending had started long before, I knew, but this, this was her ending, right in my hand.”

He was silent again, and Belle waited until she felt brave enough to speak.

“Did you tell her?”

“Not that night. Because I wasn’t completely sure. I didn’t want to scare her, or have her think I was trying to make her stay. That word, divorce, that word had been haunting us for so long. I had cowered, waiting for it. And then I had grown brave for it, enough to move forward myself and . . . but, then . . . well. If I was going to tell her, I had to be sure. I did some research.”

“. . . and then you were sure?”

“Yes.”

His head rolled forward, and he finally let it land in Belle’s neck, and she didn’t flinch, so he let the rest of the story come, bitter and black and he let the words come.

“But, you see, that next week, he was at the door. The one, that she. Well. And she answered. I stayed in the kitchen, sitting at the table. Staring at my boy, Bae, across from me. And I heard her, from the door. ‘I won't do this, not anymore’ she said, and made him leave. And then she came back into the kitchen. Finished dinner with us. We didn’t speak about it. And Bae, precious Bae, never asked, ‘Mummy, who was at the door?’ And I dared to hope. I told her, that night. About the lump.”

“And she?”

“Saw a doctor. I was sure, and then, so was she. She let me hold her, when the test results came. But we never made love again.”

“Lachlan,” Belle said softly, and she grabbed for his hand, clutching it to her chest, and he clutched his face to her nape, nose in the dip between neck and shoulder, and breathed noisily.

“Do you think,” she said, “if there hadn’t been a lump . . . that that reconciliation you shared, would it have lasted? Would you two have-”

“No,” he said too quickly, and she waited again.

“No,” he repeated. “She . . . she never meant to get pregnant, you see, never meant to be with me. I was never her first choice, she meant to change all that, get out at one point. And he, he hadn’t been her choice either, it seemed. But then, when all the choices were taken away . . . though she chose not to go with him . . . well, she was very bitter, I think.”

“. . . did you love Milah?”

He sucked in a breath. “Yes. A long time ago, I did. And the part of me that still remembers . . . the young thing that she was, that I was, still feels that love. Because I still see us, what we were, sometimes, in Bae. I very much love that.”

Belle smiled, and it was such a warm thing, holding his hand up to her lips.

“Did you love Greyson?” he asked.

“I did,” she said. “I was wild about him. And . . . I think he loved me. In the beginning. I really believed him when he said he did. But he changed, after we married.”

“Changed?” he said, but she became quiet after that, and the moment carried on, on and on, and her hand grew tight where it held him.

“Have I . . . upset you?”

“No!” she said. “I’m the one who brought it up. Love. I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right, Belle,” he said. “We can stop talking now, if you’d like.”

She nodded.

The lamps had never been on, and as the sun set, the room sank into darkness. But it was a good darkness, their conversation having eased away with the light, and the comfort of the dark heaved around them with the pleasant weight of the sheets and comforter on top of them, and his body pressed to hers. Though her breath hadn’t slowed yet, he gave her a reassuring squeeze.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “For asking about the photographs.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “For bringing up the memories.”

“What time would you like to eat tomorrow?”

He rose his eyebrows at her swift turn. “You were serious about that?”

“Of course I was. Haven’t I been serious in all my wild proposals so far?”

He squeezed her again, smiled into her neck again. “Any time, Belle. I’ll eat any time with you.”

“3:00 a.m., then,” she joked, and he chuckled.

It felt wonderful, being pressed along her backside, his nose in her hair, she tucked securely in his arms. She wiggled for comfort, and even that was its own extraordinary feeling.

“Is that a boner I feel?”

He flushed, realizing just how very plastered to her he was, and wasn’t he a fool, now? He tried to shift away. “Forgive me, I shouldn’t have - ”

“No, don’t apologize. And don’t move away, please. I want it to be a boner. I’m in the mood to be flattered.”

He chuckled into her hair again, grateful for her again, her way of making things easy, her way of making the dark good, and a comfort. “Then a boner it is.”

Chapter Text

It was a late Saturday morning.

Granny’s was bustling with its brunch crowd, plenty of people to get an eyeful of Gold and Belle as they entered the diner. They might as well have been holding hands for the stares they garnered. While seating them, Ruby only spoke to Belle, only looked at Belle, and though Gold knew it was a snub, he was quietly grateful. He was about as fond of the Lucas girl as she was of him, and he wasn’t in the mood to display any obvious disdain and make Belle uncomfortable.

They’d been offered a booth, but Belle had insisted on sitting at an open table in the middle of the diner. Gold watched as the expressions around them softened from hostile to confused, some to resigned nods. Belle was the one making the decisions, they could see, and if she chose to sit in the middle, if she chose to sit with him, if she did so with her chin jutted up and a smile on her face . . . well, they could see that no one chose her fate but her.

“So. What shall we talk about good and loud for everyone to hear?” Belle said after opening her menu.

Gold stared down at his own menu, not really seeing anything. He didn’t want to talk loud and be overheard, but he understood the gesture Belle was offering him, and it warmed him inside, brought back those good feelings he’d been relishing in more and more lately. It allowed him to relax, to feel playful.

“How about how good in bed you think I am?”

She snorted. “Oh, you're very good. You don't hog the covers and you don't snore.”

Ashley Boyd arrived shortly, apparently the one to have drawn the short straw to take their order. She was a nervous flit of a girl, trying to smile at Belle but looking more like she was trying to stomach something sour.

They hadn’t been given much time to look anything over, but Belle launched into her order anyway. “Iced tea to start, please. And a hamburger. No, cheeseburger. With some rosemary garlic fries.”

“Okay, and what kind of cheese on your burger?”

“Cheddar. The sharper, the better.”

“Aye, sharp cheddar, thats’a lass,” Gold said, Belle smiling in return and Ashley joined them, like she was in on some joke.

“Aye!” Ashley repeated, then quickly turned red. Gold and Belle looked at her in confusion. “I mean, aye. Aye aye, captain. I mean! Oh!”

Ashley abruptly turned to leave, embarrassed and forgetting to take Gold’s order entirely. She hadn’t lasted a minute with them, and Belle wasn’t quite sure what to make of it.

“I'll just have the same,” Gold called out to Ashley’s quickly retreating back, and though she didn’t turn around, she held a thumbs up in acknowledgement.

“Do I look like a bloody pirate to you?” Gold asked Belle in annoyance.

But she was too busy trying to bite a smile away to reply. “You have the strangest effect on people,” she finally said.

“Especially that one. Can’t get a straight response from her ever since she accidentally pepper-sprayed me.”

“I remember that!” Belle laughed. “She thought you were following her, right?”

“Well, I was. She’d dropped her scarf, and damn me for thinking I could return it to her. But it was late at night,” he waved, “so damn me for thinking I wouldn’t frighten a girl walking alone at night. Should have known better.”

“Oh, I don’t know, how many other brogues are there in town? Quite hard to mistake it for anyone other than you.”

“Maybe she did know,” Gold said, relishing in Belle’s laugh.

The conversation flowed easily after that, sticking mostly to silly observations of the town and its people, and when their food arrived Belle was quick to remind him to eat slowly, so they could be seen in one another’s company for a good long time. But the longer they talked, the less he cared about the patrons. The time with Belle, in a setting outside of their usual dark, was what he was languishing in.

Plates clear, they ordered dessert and their conversation began to lull as Belle stared at a bite of key lime pie on her fork. “You said you wanted to know why I didn't do this the, uh, ‘normal’ way,” she began.

“Yes,” he said, not bothering to touch his pie, turning his fork over and over in his fingers.

“Well . . . I'm not very good with people.”

He swallowed before he meant to, a painful lump down his throat. “But you are good with people. You’re great with people.”

“Well, I don’t like to be. I don't know how else to be. I wish I could do what you do. Be direct, be blunt. But I'm not like that. I don’t like confrontation. I avoid it at all costs. And it’s not a switch I can just turn off, change so I can deal with people how I wish I could, when I need to. It’s, I don't ... like people anymore. After everything that happened. After all these years. But,” she said, licking her lips, “I like you. Do you understand?”

“Not really,” he smiled, and she smiled in return.

“I’ve always liked you, Lachlan,” she said, shy now, and it threatened to catch his breath.

She pushed her plate away, looked up at him. “I wanted you because I liked you. But also, because, well, who else would understand but you? Losing a spouse you had a bad relationship with?”

He turned his fork around carefully in his hand, watching the light catch the silver tines.

She continued, quietly, not wanting to be overheard anymore. “We immortalize our dead, romanticize them. But what if they were terrible?”

She looked miserable, and he’d seen that look before, during quiet, empty moments in the mirror.

He plucked at his pie, retrieving a bite and holding it up. “To terrible, dead spouses.”

She smiled, watery, and held up her bite in return, and they toasted together, taking luxurious bites, their smiles holding sorrow, their smiles holding something shared.

Her plan to eat long and good in front of everyone at the diner had succeeded long past the lunch hour, and he decided they’d made their point. He got the rest of their pie to-go.

On the street, as the sunlight glinted off of her hair, he couldn’t help but remember that night she first came to him, with her strange proposal, with her gentle grasp of her own elbow, and the way the street lights had illuminated her.

And he remembered that day, again, when she and Greyson had come to see what would soon become their home. Just Belle’s home, now.

Greyson hadn’t been rude, but he hadn’t been friendly, either. Belle, so bright and excited, went from room to room, asking questions, actually hearing his answers. Actually laughing at his jokes, seeming to share in his dry humor. Greyson, though, took notice of Gold’s appreciation of the tiny brunette, and had placed a hand on her shoulder while she was in the middle of asking a question. The gesture, small, normal, registered in Belle’s face briefly, a twitch of the cheek. At the time, Gold had thought of it as no more than an interruption to her reverie, but he saw it now for what it was: a claim, possessiveness.

The man was dead, long and gone, but Gold worried for Belle regardless. He saw how Greyson’s hand would reach from the grave, sometimes, and land on her shoulder again, breaking her reverie, causing her cheek to twitch.

That night, rather than spooning, they faced each other in the dark, hands twined as had become their norm.

“Do you miss sex?” Belle asked.

His eyebrows nearly jolted from his face, and fuck him, was she really asking this?

“I thought this wasn't about sex,” he said, relieved when his voice held steady.

She eyed him like he was stupid.

“Of course I do,” he said.

“Were you ever with anyone else? After Milah?”

“Relationship, or sex?”

“Both, silly.”

He chuckled. “Yes. There was one woman who, well . . . that didn’t last beyond a week. But there was another. Named Cora. I met her at an estate sale. We had a relationship over the span of a year, but the time we actually spent together was barely a month, when you total the whole thing up.”

“And you had sex?”

“That’s all we had, in the end,” he smiled. “We’d meet up in Boston. She knew I was money, I knew she knew I was money. But I let it happen that way. I was greedy. You know I’m a greedy man. I wanted it, that physical closeness, that touch. I was dying, but not dead. I missed it.”

It felt funny, being so open about this. Nearly hysterical. But he couldn’t open his lips beyond his stale grin, couldn’t get his breath to break into a laugh, or even a giggle.

“You?” he asked, hollow, smile vacant and unable to leave his face.

She closed her eyes for a moment. “There was Will.”

Gold nodded. He knew Will. He was married to Anastasia.

“It was . . . too soon after Greyson’s death. I was still in a haze. I told myself, this won’t go anywhere, and, well, it didn’t.”

“Did you have sex?” he asked, bold.

She nodded. “Yes.”

“But it didn’t last.”

“No,” she said, eyes unblinking into his.

“You didn’t want him? In the night? In the dark?”

“No,” she said simply. “I didn’t want him.”

They didn’t always stay together in the night. Perhaps it was the habit they'd established with their old partners, to separate, or the years of doing this alone that ended up with them apart in the morning when they'd previously started tangled up. But when he woke sometime in the middle of the night, he was no longer holding her, no longer touching her, though her warmth was near.

Why did she have to bring up sex? Now his mind couldn’t let go of it, and he did miss it, very much. He wasn’t shy with himself, or his memories of sex. He’d cling to those memories while he clinged to himself, in fact. He was a harsh man, but he wasn’t averse to touch.

What was it he’d read, before? Deprivation led to death. Five minutes without air, five days without water, five weeks without food. Death! Something like that. Perhaps he’d made it up, the numbers couldn’t be that precise.

But the most frightening was five years without love: death. Well, he’d proved that wrong. Or maybe he was dead. Just carrying on inside this body, this body that was continuing to manage with the air, the water, the food. The real him, though. Was that dead?

He didn’t realize it until the he’d already passed the third stroke, but he was touching himself. His hand had wandered down into his pajama pants, past his boxers, to find his cock close to full erection. His hand was warm and the feeling behind his eyes was near apathetic, and god, he needed to feel, so he kept stroking.

What time was it? Belle didn’t keep a clock in here, just relied on her phone for the time and her alarm. All he had to go by was the length of the moon stretching across her room, but he couldn’t even bother to look for that, instead closing his eyes, relishing the black, biting his lip and letting his breath hiss through. He had to be quiet, he couldn’t wake her. They’d talked about sex, they’d touched, but she hadn’t requested anything, hadn’t pushed for anything. What if she found him, what if he disgusted her, what would she do, say?

Just a little. Not to orgasm, he told himself. Just enjoy the touch. You can enjoy orgasm tomorrow in your shop, if you must. Or in the morning, at home, or just before you come by her house again, or, or,

Her knee bumped his, and he jumped. How absorbed had he been that he didn’t notice the movement next to him? Subtle movement, gentle rocking. Who had started touching themselves first? Belle’s breath was gentle, very gentle, but he heard it, deep in her chest, fighting to keep quiet. The same muffled sounds he was carrying. He could see that her legs were spread, under the covers, the prominent edges of her knees outlined like small rising mountains, and he knew her hand was busy in the valley in between. He sucked in breath, cursing himself briefly for being so loud, so obvious, but then she sucked in breath as well.

He took a chance. He turned over on his side, facing her, allowed her leg to be hugged between both of his. She turned to face him as well, and her eyes, open and bold, nearly frightened him. He continued to move his hand, stroking along his cock, leaking eagerly now, and watched the gentle motion of her arm, clearly occupied with pleasuring herself beneath the sheets. He couldn’t see past her elbow, but the knowledge was enough.

Am I dreaming? he thought. It was so very black in here, so dark, and the dark was where hidden, quiet wishes came true, wasn’t it? It was that confusion, that undecided reality, that kept him from speaking beyond his hurried pants. She didn’t speak either, and they kept stroking in time, in silence, in rhythm.

He waited until he was sure she came. And when he felt her shake, heard her breath, saw her arch, just slightly, he let himself go. He tried to catch the mess with his other hand, keep it from going too far. He felt the small puddle it created in the sheets, felt himself blink rapidly at the realization of what he’d just done. He rose out of bed, hurried to her bathroom.

He hadn’t been in here before, he always used the second bath, and the room was heady with her smell. He washed his hands in the dark, gripped awkwardly for a washcloth in the dark, returned to the bed to clean his mess. She was still, silent, on her side. After tidying his mess, he saw, in what light there was, that her hand was outstretched.

“The towel,” she said.

He gulped. She wanted it? He carefully folded it so his mess was contained within, then passed it over to her. He watched as she cleaned her hand, then reached beneath the covers to clean between her legs. When she outstretched her hand again with the towel, he took it.

He stood, quiet, careful. Then, with her watching, held the towel to his face. He breathed in.

Chapter Text

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?”

Chapter Text

“You’re an amazing cook, Lachlan.”

“I am,” he said, no humility.

He’d done his very best to impress her with a mushroom risotto dish he was fond of, one that required beef stock and thyme and constant stirring. It allowed him to stand behind her and press his chest to her back while he directed the wooden spoon in her hands. If his hips found themselves connecting to her rear with each gentle motion of their stirs, well. He could blame it on the narrow space between his kitchen island and stove top.

They hadn’t bothered making their way to the dining room, just kept things informal by plating and dining right there in the kitchen. Standing at the island and leaning over their dishes together and blinking up at one another between bites of risotto, sips of wine.

“Wonderful,” she said, for what must have been the hundredth time as they finished their meal. She’d been overcomplimenting his efforts all evening. “Nothing came from a box or can or package or anything.”

He blinked, cocked a smile. “What kind of meals have you been eating?”

She smiled down at her plate as she took her last bite. “Lonely ones,” she said. “I can cook,” she waved, before he asked, “I just . . . there’s a certain . . . when it’s just for me, the joy of it goes, and I can’t, when I look at the largeness of the kitchen, and the smallness of me, and when the extra food feels meant for two, I can’t,”

“Stop,” he said, clearing her plate. “I understand. I went through a sandwich phase, too.” He remembered those first nights arriving at her home, evidence of her simple meals on her counter. “You can cook for me, too, if you’d like. This can be my strange proposal. Eating dinner with each other every night, cooking for one another. Or together. You stir while I pour, that kind of thing.”

She smiled, wider this time. “I’d like that.”

“We can be small in the kitchen together.”

Now where had that come from? It had been nearly romantic, that.

It was all very strange and big and devouring, these feelings. Wanting to cook for her, wanting to kiss her, wanting to slip his hands underneath her gown and cradle close in the bed they shared. They weren’t small in the kitchen at all, or anywhere - this was too huge, too much.

He turned around and headed to the sink. Turned on the water, grabbed a pan that needed washing, and set to work on a gentle scrubbing that somehow managed to contain all the emotion coursing up and down his arms. It threatened to gush out and flood the whole house if he wasn’t careful!

She joined him at his side, jostling those emotions, checking them down, and they washed the dishes together in silence.

He let the thrum of the water flowing from the faucet hide the small coughs he was making in the back of his throat, the sentiments that were threatening to fall out. He tried to center his thoughts, order them, before he ran out of dishes to clean. Pan, pot, plate, plate, fork, knife, God. When the last one was complete, he worried a rag over his wet hands, forgot the order of whatever it was he wanted to say, and blurted his nonsense anyway.

“Can I ask you something?” he said.

“Mm hmm,” she said, drying her hands when he passed her the rag. “You can always ask me something, Lachlan. I’m surprised you don’t know that by now.”

“Well. It’s a painful something.”

“Hmm,” she hummed again. “That’s all right. But I might ask a painful something in return.”

He hummed too, or tried to, just ended up coughing into his fist. “Should we get ready for bed first?”

“Is it that painful of a something?” she said, folding her arms, resting her back on the counter next to him. Her naked forearm brushed his and he coughed into his fist again.

“I think so. Yes.”

“Well,” she said, pushing off the counter. Her forearm left his, but her gaze as she answered him was its own touch. “Then let’s get ready for bed.”

A good tooth brushing and slip into pajamas later, they were huddled in his bed, she facing him and their hands resting untouched between them. They were quiet a long time, his awkward jumble of thoughts and the warmth of her nearness mucking him up.

He watched as she she rounded a thumb over her own knuckles the same way he had her earlier that day, and she spoke.

“It’s always raining when we’re at your place.”

Oh.

Sure enough there was that gentle patter of summer rain upon his roof, a frothing storm, just starting. He wondered how absorbed he’d been that he hadn’t heard it before. It made him think of his farmhouse painting, the black storm above, and the way she’d commented on it when she’d first come to him. Of when he’d held his hand out to the rain, touched her cheek.

“Are you ready to ask me your painful something?”

“I’m . . . not,” he said, blinking, listening to the rain, the thunder.

She didn’t begrudge him his awkwardness or insist on impatience, just laughed. “Let’s talk about something else, then,” she said, chewing on her lip. “What else do you like?”

He narrowed his eyes. “What else do I like? What do you mean?”

“Earlier today, you said you like the ocean. We like the ocean. I want to know what other little intimacies we share.”

He smiled, let himself breathe normally, finally, and tucked a hand behind his head. “Aside from sleeping together, you want more intimacies than that?”

She giggled.

“Well, hmm. I like . . . coffee. Black. No cream or sugar.”

“Ew.”

“Ew?”

“It needs sugar, at the very least.”

“Guess that’s not an intimacy we share.”

She giggled again. “I already knew that one, you know. What else?”

He chuckled, thought a moment while listening to that patter. “Cold, rainy days.”

“Not these hot, rainy ones.”

“Oh, no, not at all.” The storm above curdled in response, and he rethought his answer. Belle was so close to him, after all. “Actually . . . they’re not so . . . right now, it’s not so bad.”

She smiled, blinking, knowing. “What else?”

“Well. Reading.”

“Mmm,” she smiled, slow melt of her mouth. “Yes. Reading. What’s your favorite?”

“Book?”

“Or newspaper article. Magazine. Lifestyle blog. Whatever your jam is.”

“My jam is books.”

“Straightforward, then. What’s your favorite?”

He thought a moment, his mind pulling up an imaginary shelf. It was too heavy, sagging with hundreds of book spines crammed together, nameless titles and years he couldn’t even remember.

“I . . . I honestly don’t know.”

“The last book that you read, then?”

He couldn’t remember that either. “I guess I . . . don’t actually like reading,” he said.

Thunder sounded above them, long and rolling, and Belle laughed before stifling a yawn.

He wrung his blanket in front of him, eyes narrowing at his inability to think past the bleary titles of his memory. There was something bright in his eyes blocking the way, pink skin, white teeth as she smiled - past reads were unable to conjure any remembrance of joy at the moment, but perhaps that was only because a new, bursting joy was dipping in the bed next to him. Making his eyes squint, his skin warm.

“I’ll peruse your bookshelves tomorrow and tell you what you like, then. Or I’ll pick something out for you at the library,” she said, and when she nuzzled her head and hands against her pillow, it made her cleavage pout from her gown, and he swallowed, squinted harder. Too bright, this.

“You better ask me that question, now. Before I get too sleepy. I like the rain too, hot or cold, but I must admit it lulls me into a not-so-awake state.”

He smiled, couldn’t quite laugh, and licked his lips. “All right.” He licked his lips again, brought up his question, and framed it simply as he could.

“How did you . . . how did you find out about Greyson?”

“Oh,” she said.

She turned onto her back, blinked up at the ceiling. The storm grew heavier above them, but eventually, he heard her take breath.

“One night, we had Jeff over for dinner,” she started.

The rain grew heavier, the wind longer, and Gold scooted closer to better hear her.

“We did that a lot, had him over. Him and Grace. Went to their house sometimes, too. But, one night, Greyson. He was . . . on, the whole dinner. Just the life of the party. So. So happy.”

She took another breath, and it wasn’t a yawn, this time.

“It wasn’t unusual, Greyson being like that. But, for several days before that night . . . weeks before, really, he wasn’t. He’d been quiet, and depressed. Changed, so unlike the Greyson I knew. And that night, after Jeff left, Greyson turned off again. Was gone, silent. Like the dinner had never happened.”

She smiled, that sad one he’d grown used to, the one she wore in the middle of bad memories, and he frowned. She was bright, but she could dim, too.

“It wasn’t hard to see it then, after that night. I don’t know if I knew right then, right away, but I remember that when I did know, that was the night that stuck out to me. How ready I was to continue that happy he had been, the relief I’d felt during dinner . . . and the pain I felt when it ended so soon. The way he, the way he looked at me, after he’d closed the door as Jeff left. Like he wished he’d left, too.”

“Did you ask him about it?”

“I did,” she said. “And he . . . grew so sad. Then, so angry. Denied it all, vehemently. Spoke in such a way . . . it was frightening. He, he became someone I’d never met before. ‘No,’ he’d said. ‘You’re mine. And I’m yours.’ It should have been romantic. But it wasn’t . . . it was . . . I was scared. He never looked at me the same again, once he knew I knew. He didn’t look at me like I was his happiness, anymore. I had become . . . his weight. I was his, he,”

Her voice was getting stuck, and she had to bring a hand up to her throat, swallow down the words. Gold reached up too, wanting to help, wanting to swallow for her. It was an impossible wish, all he had were his hands, and they didn’t know what to do.

“He wouldn’t talk about it. He acted like things should carry on as normal, but. He stopped touching me. My skin, my hair. They were no longer appealing, or special. They weren’t a part of the one he loved.”

But they were a part of the one he loved. The realization shook him, all that bright made sense, brought his hands to an understanding, and he knew what to do. He touched her, now, hair first, pretty halo around her face, perfect color against the perfect pink of her skin. Her lips as they trembled from memory, her painful past, more raw and recent than his.

She turned into his touch, curled into his hands where they grasped her. “We’re ten years gone, Lachlan. It’s better, and it’s not.”

“I’m sorry, Belle. I’m so sorry. You can ask me a painful something now, if you’d like,” he said, thumbs skimming her ears.

She looked up at him, black lashes, blue eyes, his fingers at her temple and cheek. “Milah,” was all she said, and he nodded, understanding.

“When she first got sick, first started her treatments . . .” he said, thinking. He was slow to bring up the words, and he understood her troubled swallow.

“She stayed here, at home. Had her own room. She didn’t share mine. I’d stay too, work from home, take care of her. But eventually . . . treatments can be so . . . heavy, so hard. She eventually had to be at the hospital. And I’d stay with her as much as I could. I thought that’s how I could express my support to her, my love. Despite everything, I wanted to give her that. Show her that I could be there for her. But,” and he wore that sad smile now, awkward one, it hurt, so he took it off. “She didn’t like it.”

Belle cupped his hand where he held her face, gave him the moment he needed before he could continue.

“And the worse she got . . . soon she didn’t even want me in the room, just Bae. So I’d take him in, wait outside the door while he visited her. But even those visits got harder, heavier. She . . . she wasn’t getting better. We all knew it. Soon, she didn’t even want Bae in the room.”

There was pressure under his eyes, at his jaw, what was it? Oh, Belle was holding his face, now. He breathed, gulped, and felt her thumb upon his throat, the rain above their heads.

“I know so much of that year was due to the way the treatment affected her, but. God. Even before she got sick . . . I understand it, Belle. I’ve felt it. I know what it’s like to feel like someone else’s regret . . . your very presence, a constant reminder.”

“Palpable resentment,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. “Her resentment towards me. It wasn’t new. It had become a staple, an expectation. The only one I could live up to.”

Belle nodded.

“You may find me silly,” she said. “But in the night, after Greyson would fall asleep, I would reach up, like this,” and she turned onto her back again, and held her hand up, out, reaching for the ceiling. “I’d reach. I’d open my fingers, and reach.”

“What were you reaching for?”

“Someone. Something. Anything. Hope.”

Did you find it? he wanted to ask, but she was reaching now, out into the air, up and fingers splayed, grasping at nothing, longing. Such a simple visual, her hand out in waiting, wanting. He felt what he saw, somewhere deep in his stomach, pushing up through his own arm.

He reached up, and grasped her hand.

“Hope,” he repeated, as they brought their hands back down to the bed. Palms pressed together, fingers intertwined. Lightning struck somewhere in the distance, a loud crack, far away, and his breath caught at the way it dilated her eyes.

“I don't want to look back anymore,” she said. “I'm tired of turning into a pillar of salt.”

She pulled their hands to her chest. The gown she was wearing, the shift of their arms and hands had opened the fabric, nearly exposing a breast. He could just see the peek of areola where her fingers gripped him so tight - the back of his hand was grazing her nipple, yes. It made him shake, made him pull her deeper into him. He wrapped his free arm around her as best he could, encasing her waist, her back. She fit him perfectly. He kissed her forehead, nuzzled her gently.

“Hope,” he whispered again, somewhere in her hair.

She burrowed into him with the encouragement of his tugs. Her stomach, her legs, her chest, and he felt his body stir against her.

“Belle, the towel, please. We have to talk about it. I want to talk about it.”

She opened her mouth to speak, a whimper near his throat where he’d tucked her into him, but lightning struck again before she could reply. Closer this time, a huge boom in his backyard, a brilliant light filling his bedroom, brighter and more frightening than the one he held.

He pulled Belle from his neck, hand firm at her jawline, and with her eyes unblinking into his, he angled his mouth over hers.

A terrible moan swayed and broke outside. A tree branch, from the sound of it, landing with calamity in his yard.

Together they pulled apart and jumped at the sound, eyes blinking rapidly. They rose, trembling, arms around one another, and headed for his window. A large branch had fallen, broken across his fence, posts smashed and leaving a fresh mouth open to the next yard. A small fire was below, and they bounded down his stairs together, him leaning on her when his leg threatened to double him over.

Out into the rain they went, pajamas and bare feet. They stood, holding hands, staring stupidly at the fire, the rain doing little to put it out. His neighbor across the broken fence was yelling, a voice of frenzy and panic, but he didn’t really hear it.

“We should call the fire department,” Belle said.

“Yes,” he said, but neither one moved.

Small fire, stupid thing, ruining his yard, but he liked looking at it with Belle. He squeezed her hand tight before rounding her into him, guiding her into his chest. He placed a hand on her back where her silk had grown wet and sliding, and her hair was pretty like this, he thought, dark lines down her face, her neck.

“We should,” Belle said again, but never really finished.

“We will,” he said, moving down and kissing her again.

He felt the way her hands wrapped around his back, bunched at his wet fabric, pulled him tighter, closer, skimmed his skin. His neighbor was still yelling, busy noise in the distance, but that was another should they’d handle later.

Chapter Text

Red lights were blinking everywhere, more annoying than the fire had been. And though it’d been put out ages ago, the firemen lingered and lingered and lingered, and this was taking forever, and he just wanted to get back inside to Belle.

His branch had been cleared. Leroy, of all people, had done the job. A volunteer firefighter, because of course Leroy was. Gold’s evening, his yard, his brilliant kiss with Belle, had been filled up with a thousand excited voices and emergency! It was only a small fire, but the whole commotion had his ears ringing by the time everyone was wrapping up to leave, by the time his neighbor had finally stopped yelling.

He’d ushered Belle inside, when they came. She was so wet and shivering and shaking that even her goose flesh could be seen through her silk for the way it clung to her. And her breasts, and her thighs, and her mons if she moved just right, and the sight was driving him wild when he really just needed to get her warm. He needed to get warm too, now. He was a drowned and grumpy rat watching the red lights drive away, finally fucking drive away. He grumbled and wrung his sleeves for the hundredth time, one arm and then the other. It was a useless venture, the rain just soaked them right through again, and it was simply time to go inside.

The fence would be mended in time, he’d worry about that later. For now a bright, pink being was upstairs, huddled in his bed and waiting for a drier, warmer him to return and burrow next to her. He wanted to kiss her again, his mouth tingled and burned every time he thought of it.

He made his way upstairs, limping against the wall, wet footsteps and soggy drips and squelches all the way. Why hadn’t he grabbed a towel before, a coat? He shook his head, and made his way to the upstairs bath, planning to undress, towel off, hold his head in his hands for a moment. He needed a good head-holding, he was feeling jittery and shaky. His bones were cold, and the wind continued to howl and moan about the house, the rain seeming to pick up and patter harder.

Wait, no, that wasn’t the rain. The patter was coming from down the hall, from his shower. A seam of light from the door ajar, gentle steam rising.

He blinked, surprised. Belle was in his shower. The thought widened his eyes, made all that soaking fabric around him perk up. But really, what was so exciting about this? She’d been freezing, she’d needed to get warm quickly. It made sense, really, just a practical solution to the problem at hand. Normal. Nothing to get worked up over.

The towel closet was just next to the bathroom, and he squelched his way over. It was undisturbed, and he wondered if she’d yet to grab a towel for herself. She’d need one, and he should set it by the door, or maybe just inside, or maybe he could offer her his robe, or, or,

But he heard it, then.

Her soft moan.

It made something fall in his gut, unwind his knots, run his blood hot. He swallowed, and rest his hand upon the door, gently pushed it open, slow, slow, steam greeting and warming his face.

He stood enveloped for a moment, breathing, shaking.

She hadn’t fully closed the curtain. A view of her through the steam showed her divided, one half shrouded, the other open and ready for him to see. His throat grew dry and his tongue swelled wet. She was leaning back against his tile, eyes closed, mouth open. Her hands running over her neck, working the muscles there. Her hair coming down in sharp, dark lines against her pale skin, down and framing her breasts, circling round their shape, her nipples puckered pink against the strands.

She was beautiful, so beautiful, and it hurt to look at her.

Her head shifted from side to side, slow, and her hands drifted down over her breasts. Small, soft, absent movements. Her hands moved down, rounded over her groin, so slow, so small. She didn’t finger or rub herself, just cupped, soft hold, but it took his mind right back to those small movements underneath the sheets, the movements they’d shared together. Her head back, neck exposed, the water beating down on her, warming her body like she was sunning herself.

The scene had him aching so, so terribly, and he understood now. The hurt he felt when looking at her wasn’t pain, wasn’t sorrow. It was, it was longing. He didn’t feel resentment, he didn’t want to turn his head away. His presence - a frozen, shaking man in the middle of all that steam, didn’t feel unwelcome, or unwanted; he felt present, belonging to the night, this night, and the woman before him.

“Lachlan,” she said, and yes, that was the moan he’d heard before, and he nearly swallowed his tongue.

“Belle,” he said, and her eyes startled open.

She blinked at him, eyes trying to focus through the foggy steam, and she pulled her hand away from herself. She looked ready to apologize, but he shook his head.

He stared where her hand had been. Her dark hair, her swollen labia, flushed red and wet as his shower ran over her. His lips parted.

“You were … touching yourself,” he said.

She nodded.

“You said my name.”

She nodded again.

“I think,” he said, and his chest ached, that beautiful hurt. “I think we need to be together.”

Her own mouth parted, and the hand that had been cupping herself moved up to her stomach, her chest. Her thumb ran over the skin where her heart lay underneath, and she looked down, briefly, then held her hand out, palm up, beyond the curtain, reaching for him.

Her hand, before, reaching up to the ceiling.

I would reach, she’d said.

Her hand, now, reaching out to him.

He grasped it, gently.

He stepped into the shower with her, feet bare but the rest of him still clothed in those terribly soggy pajamas, and she let out a single, loud, happy laugh. He hissed as the water hit his skin, his frozen clothes - hot sting, so jarring, and it made him laugh in return. He cupped her face, her skull, her back. So warm and wet. Her small, small torso and her small, small ribs. She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close, laughed again for how cold he was against her. But the work of warming him up was quick, and he ignored the spray that threatened to close his eyes as he bent down to kiss her. He kissed her. Kissed her and kissed her.

Her tongue, her teeth, oh. Her tongue sliding along his, her teeth bumping his, oh. When was the last time he’d kissed someone so thoroughly? Been kissed so deep, so treacherous in return?

She pushed up on her toes to meet him more readily. Pulled at his fabric, this way and that, too busy to open her eyes and see how it needed to be removed. Buttons, of course, but why bother? When she started pulling up his pajama shirt to yank it over his head, he obliged, ducking when she needed him to, helping her toss the sopping garment aside. She quickly pressed herself to him, skin against skin, chests tight, and he marveled at her warmth, ran his hands down her back and squeezed her hips, her ass, tight and relishing her gasp as his nails dug in.

Her mouth pulled away from him, and she buried her head somewhere in his neck, while he brought up a hand to rub at his eyes where the water was blurring his vision. When he could blink more clearly, he looked down at her, tugged on her hair again, asked for her mouth again. She moved as his hand directed, but then he was stuck, too caught up in the sight of them pressed together to move his head down.

He ran a hand up her ribs, up to where she’d rubbed her heart, earlier.

“You have a scar,” he said.

“Yes,” she said.

“There must be a story behind that.”

“There is, I suppose.”

He rubbed the scar, long thing from her front to her back, and her own hands traveled him. They stopped at his bicep, kneading with curious interest.

“You have a lizard tattoo,” she said.

He smiled, reached up to cup her hand where it rest on his shoulder. “Aye, I do.”

“There must be a story behind that.”

“There is, I suppose.”

She smiled in return, smiled at his repetition, and ran her finger absently over the design, the tiny scaly back, the tail. He, in turn, traced his palm along the sharp line running along her ribcage.

Her hands moved down to skim his stomach, trembling as they tugged on his pajama pants, trembling but pushing them down. Thick with rainwater and shower, they proved difficult around his hips, his thighs, but fell to his ankles readily enough.

Belle stared at his erection, and reached a single finger to touch his head. She let it run gentle down the small slit of his opening, let the rest of her fingers join and rub his head, his ridge. He twitched against her touch, hissed, but made no objections as she continued her explorations. She let her grip round him, let her palm slide up and down, and he stopped breathing.

“I,” she started. “I know how to make love to myself. But. I don’t know how to make love to another person, anymore.”

His eyebrows raised, surprised. “Do you want to? Is this all ri-”

“Yes!” she said, grabbing for his hips, digging her nails in, the same way he’d done to her.

“Then. I can lead us. Let me lead us. Please.”

“Yes,” she said again, looking up at him, letting his nose nuzzle her cheek.

“Do you want me, Belle? In the night? In the dark?”

She trembled. “You know I do.”

And he did, didn’t he? He’d known it a long time, since she’d grabbed her elbow and spoken her request in his entryway, all those many moons ago. But you didn’t say things like that right in the beginning. I want you in the night, I want you for myself. Those things came later, after several nights of confession and huddled whispers. These things came slowly, one touch after another, until intimacy was the only harbor left.

“I want you,” she said, when he didn’t speak for a long time.

“And I want you too.”

He directed her hands around his neck, leading her like he said he would. He interlaced her fingers at his nape, then pulled her stomach close into his, his erection pressed between them. He angled her jaw up again, ran his thumb over her lips until she opened for him and let his tongue and teeth back inside. He anchored her to him with one hand at her lower back, the other pushing up to knead her breast. Plump, perfect thing, he could hardly breathe. He rolled her nipple between his fingers, pinched and pulled, relished the way her tongue shuddered and her body squirmed. With every pinch she whimpered, and every sound made him swell further.

Her hips started a slow wiggle, her legs started to open around his thigh, seeking the friction of his firm muscles and sparse hair. He blinked at the motion, and pushed his thigh into her, nuzzled his forehead into her, and encouraged her grinding, pressing as firm as his bad leg would allow. If he rolled her nipple, if he sucked her tongue, her wiggles, her pressing, would grow more frantic, and he smiled into her mouth.

He moved a hand down, down to where she rubbed against him, and sought out her folds. His bad leg could only give her so much. She stopped her wiggling and her eyes popped open, staring wide-eyed back at him as his hand enveloped her.

“Please?” he asked.

“Please!” she said, nodding.

He pushed two fingers inside her, and she gasped loudly and grabbed his shoulders, ducking her face into his neck.

“No,” he said. “Look at me. Look at me.”

With his other hand he fumbled bringing her head back up to him, her eyes blinking back into his. With his thumb he sought out her small bud, and her eyes widened further when he pressed against it.

“Keep moving,” he said, kissing her.

Her wiggles resumed; small, gentle thrusts. With his help she was soon riding his hand against his thigh, fingers buried inside her, thumb against her clit. She gasped into his mouth, whimpered, shook. She was unable to form full kisses against his lips when he curled his fingers, but he could forgive her such a simple folly as long as her mouth stayed close, her eyes stayed open, looking at him as he’d requested.

“You’re so beautiful, Belle,” he muttered, losing himself. “So beautiful … feel so good.”

“So good,” she echoed, shaking terribly. “So beautiful.”

She was so warm, so wet, so tight. His cock twitched, and she must have felt it against her stomach, for she fumbled a hand down to him, enveloped him again in her small fingers, small palm. It made him lose his rhythm, made him hiss again. The hot water all around him made her movements slick, and as he curled his fingers deeper, her thrusts grew more frantic, her hand sloppy around his cock, her grip firmer than she meant it, and he groaned into her mouth.

This was impossible for his leg, just impossible, and he growled as his balance started to slip.

“How close are you?” he said, moaning to get words out.

“I can wait,” she said, “until you’re in me.”

“I’m not sure I can in here,” he bemoaned, “with my leg.”

She nodded, her lips and nose rubbing his.

“I don’t want you to wait, Belle. I want to make you come now. Right here,” he said.

“I,” she whimpered, rolling her hips, beautiful thing just couldn’t stop. “I can wait, I can-”

“You can’t wait. And I don’t want you to. It’s not a one-time thing, Belle. I want to make you come now, and then again, later, in my bed.”

“You-you want to do this again?”

He tweaked her nipple in response, pressed his mouth to hers, and she mewled against him.

Pain shot through him, and damn it his leg was going to ruin everything! He twisted, wrapping a desperate arm around her middle, and let his back fall against the tile. Belle followed best she could, their jerky movements making her fall harder onto his hand, and she cried out, her walls suddenly convulsing around him.

“I can wait, I can wait, I can wait,” she whimpered, wriggling her hips hard down onto him with each pulse.

“You’re already coming, Belle.”

Her whimpers continued, again and again, deep gasps, wide eyes blinking into his, her body atop his hand, his thigh.

She collapsed against him, losing her balance, and he pulled his hand from between her legs, grasping to help her stay up.

“I’ve got you, I’ve got you,” he said as they slumped against the tile together, breathing heavy, hard patter of hot water all around them. She continued to rub his cock, persistent grip, up and down, trying so hard despite the disappearance of her bones.

They slid down to the bottom of the tub together, gentle plop, their quiet world of heat and steam. He held up his hand, stared at the fingers that had fucked her. They were slick, sticky with her, and the sight combined with Belle’s gentle strokes had him moaning.

“Need to … get to the bed,” he said, low, feeble.

“Okay,” she nodded.

But he brought his fingers to his mouth, too lost in their scent to get up just yet. He met them with his tongue, breathed deep at their taste, and sucked them in.

Belle watched with surprise, eyes furrowed at the way with which he savored his action, the way he didn’t bother looking away from her. She leaned forward, pressed her forehead to his, and deepened her strokes.

“The bed,” he said again, around his fingers, around another moan.

“You like this,” Belle said, “I love how much you like this.”

His hips started to buck into her hand, and the sensation of it all - her firm grip on his cock, up and down, the taste of her come on his fingers, stroking his tongue in time with her beats, the patter of heat all around him, why not lose himself here, why not?

“Yes,” he said. “I love this.”

He released his fingers with one last, long suck, and reached down, pulled her closer, grabbed her hips closer. He brought his hand down again, pushed her legs open, pushed his fingers inside again. She gasped, but continued pumping him, and his hips kept pushing, and oh God!

“I love this,” he said again, feeling the inside of her, her grip on him, and his cock spilling onto her, and his hips jerking wildly with his orgasm.

His breath was so thick with steam, his troubled pants as he tried to bring himself back down again. He could feel sweat breaking all over his back and forehead from the exertion, and he buried his face in Belle’s skin to try and calm himself. Thank God the shower would wash away all of this, this sweat, the come he’d gotten all over her, the tide that had overwhelmed him.

He fell, his bones having disappeared too, now. He sunk next to Belle on his hard shower floor, finally noticing what an uncomfortable surface it was. But it wasn’t so bad with her arms and legs wrapped around him, the way she held him, the way she said his name.

“Lachlan, the sun,” she said, lifting her head up, “it’s rising.”

Gold blinked. He looked up too, now, through the curtain, and sure enough daylight was starting to make its way down his hallway, through the peek of the door. Daylight and everything that came with it. Work, morning, the fire, broken fence, busy, all that awaited them, knocking quietly across the horizon.

He rest back down, curled his body around hers, the same as any night he’d curl his body around her.

“Just a little longer,” he said, kissing her hair, her forehead. They could get out when the hot water ran out, when the steam finally evaporated.

She nodded, hands cupping his face, his neck, and just a little longer they stayed.