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Hello Again (We've Never Met)

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It was quiet in her library.

There were the usual noises--the wind brushing up against the windows, the occasional pop of wax from the candles, the creaking sigh of the floorboards under phantom footsteps. But otherwise, silence.

Lacey was bored.

Rumpelstiltskin could tell even through the mirrors he used to monitor--spy--on his houseguest. Her eyes were dull, her body slumped on the settee next to her--Belle’s--favorite candelabra and she idly drummed her fingers along the side of her thigh to something internal and tuneless.

She shouldn’t exist. His wife was gone , peacefully laid to rest at the Edge of Realms where they’d spent their life together in such happiness he had trouble believing it was something that had happened to him. He’d been wandering, half in quest for death, half aimless, truth be told. Finding Alice had been a boon, a salve on his soul and renewed purpose all in one. Even after denying himself her assistance as the Guardian, he was still fond of the girl. Alice’s quest and his had aligned so neatly for so long, it had to have been fate, hadn’t it? To reunite with their loved ones. To reunite with Belle.

That hadn’t really lasted long. He’d tried so hard to be good, to do good, he was miles away from the man he’d been . . . somehow he had still ended up covered in scales and leather though, so things weren’t quite as on track as he’d hoped.

He dismissed the image of Lacey in the mirror and nervously patted down his wild hair with glittering hands tipped in claws. Fantastic. He’d found his wife--or her doppelganger curse-self from another realm--he was the Dark One still, and for some reason he’d decided to come back to the Dark Castle after kidnapping the confused simulacrum and he looked like this . Again.

What was that saying? Insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Obviously, he was insane. There was no question about that. How he ended up in these loops, cursed and Cursed and cursed again, well, it was bound to mess with your head. But there were limits and returned dead people crossed them.

Maybe she came from a pocket realm?” Alice had suggested, mouth furled in confusion and excitement. “Sort of my like my Papa and I? A pocket-cursed-Wish-realm Beauty? She definitely looks pocket-sized.” She stood shoulder to shoulder with him, looking at the small woman in the blue sequin dress asleep--or rather, passed out--at their feet. She’d just been there, in the woods in front of them as they walked along. She’d taken one look around, yelled out a curse, and then collapsed. He’d caught her before she’d fallen completely and laid her gently on the leaf litter in shock while Alice flitted about asking him what was wrong. It had taken him nearly ten minutes to get ahold of himself enough to tell her who the strangely dressed woman was-or who he thought she was at any rate.

“Belle was dead in the Wish realm,” Rumpelstiltskin reminded her gently, partially to keep himself calm at the thought and partially out of sympathy for that eternally damned version of himself trapped in such a reality. “And there was no Land Without Magic curse to take them to Storybrooke, where Lacey could even have a possibility of existing.”

“Well yeah, but maybe . . . there was?” Alice reasoned. He gave her a mild look and she shrugged. “I don’t know mate, but she’s here now , so that’s something. Hey, maybe I can take her on adventures! Since she’s pocket-sized and all. She likes adventuring, doesn’t she?”

“Belle liked adventuring,” Rumpelstiltskin said somewhat tersely. “Lacey liked alcohol, pool, bad music, and watching me beat people up.”

Alice’s wide eyes got wider. “Right then. Definitely taking her adventuring.” She gave her trademark toothy grin.

He shook his head. “I think I need to take her . . . away. And try and figure out how she exists, and who she really is. Because she can’t be Belle. She can’t be.”

He’d come here, of all places. He had some vague notion about using the laboratory in the tower to investigate her existence. If he were honest with himself (and he tried to be damnit, and with others, really he did) he’d brought her here to see if it meant anything to her. She’d awoken shortly after he’d transported them into her . . . Belle’s library. He’d had a fire going, and was standing next to it awkwardly, hands fidgeting as she’d looked around herself and finally settled terrified eyes on himself.

“It’s alright Lacey, you’re safe here,” he’d begun.

“How do you know my name?! What the hell are you?” She’d demanded.

It had gone downhill from there. After some more futile words of comfort and hesitant attempts to explain things, he’d whisked himself away in a cloud of purple smoke after she’s thrown a high-heeled shoe at him whilst shouting. Definitely Lacey, he had determined. And scared, and angry, and real and impossible.

He’d had a tea trolley take a hot drink and some food into her, automated by magic to roll itself into the library as a sort of balance between having it just poof into existence and subjecting her (and him) to his presence again. He’d been monitoring her through the mirrors since he’d left. She’d stood on top of the settee in shock as the food arrived, and investigated it with obvious suspicion. She’d left it sitting until the tea was tepid before deciding it was safe or reached a point of hunger and thirst where she ceased to care. After eating and drinking the tea like she was starved, she’d wandered the library a bit, sans both shoes which she carried in one hand like she couldn’t bear to be parted from them in case she had to leave in a hurry. Or she needed another weapon he mused.

For all her bluster, however, she never tried to leave the library. Not once. The doors were unlocked, he had no wish to make her feel like a prisoner. But strangely, she’d merely looked around the room, touching things at random with no apparent goal, and then dropped down onto the settee with a sigh. He thought maybe she’d sleep some more, but she’d spent several hours now watching the fire, listlessly shifting position occasionally until she’d ended up reclined along one side, propped up on one elbow, head in hand.

Perhaps now was the time to approach her. She seemed-not exactly comfortable, but not ill at ease. Maybe the food had helped to show he meant no harm.

He was wearing nice clothing. That is to say, clothing that he felt made him project “nice” more than “fear me!” The sort of clothing he’d taken to wearing during his life with Belle, and afterwards as he wandered the realms. Just because his skin and hair (and eyes and nails and teeth) were beastly again, he hoped the clothing would at least convey he was not a threat. No skinning children for their belts, not he.

He knocked on the door. Rather than appearing or disappearing willy-nilly, he thought she might be more comfortable with him minimizing the obvious magic as much as possible.

He heard a rustling inside, but no verbal response. Waiting a moment to see if it would come, he cautiously opened the door and peeked his head inside.

“Hello,” he said, embarrassed to hear a faint bit of trill to his voice. He cleared his throat. Talk like a man, walk like a man, you’ve done it for decades don’t lose the plot now.

She was standing on the settee again, one hand holding a shoe in front of her defensively, the other raised up in position to throw. He put both hands up in front of him in surrender.

“Just me,” he sort of, well, squeaked, and this was all fantastic.

“Who. Are. You.” She enunciated clearly and didn’t put the shoes down.

“My name is Rumpelstiltskin-”

“Bullshit.”

“No, really, it is,” he continued mildly. Some things were the same across realms. “I’m your . . . friend, though you might not remember that right now. You’re in my castle in the Enchanted Forest. You’re quite safe.” This all assumed, of course, that she was really Lacey who was really Belle who did remember him. Details.

Lacey lowered the throwing arm-with-shoe but kept a tight grip on both heels stiffly by her sides.

“How did I get here? And how do you know who I am?” He’d forgotten what the accent sounded like through a Lacey-filter, sort of brittle and mouthed compared to how Belle spoke most of the time.

“I brought you here.” He dared a step further into the room. “My friend Alice and I found you in the woods and brought you here when you fainted.”

Lacey snorted. He didn’t know if it was the idea of fainting or the idea of him having friends or what precisely. Fickle creature Lacey was, he could guess all day and be wrong.

“What, Alice in Wonderland?” She asked sarcastically.

Ah, yes, that. “And other places.”

She stared at him, and a sneer hovered around the edges of her mouth.

“Listen you weirdo, I don’t know what you’re on or what was put in my drink but you better come clean with me right now.” Lacey was radiating anger and fear, brash confidence rearing its head while he stared back dumbly. She jumped off the couch and stalked toward him, stopping a good distance away and gesturing with the stiletto. “This some messed-up sex thing? Like a fetish? You need to put on gobs of makeup and decorate your basement like Disneyland to get off?”

His mouth worked a bit with no sound. He could feel his fingers twitching uselessly at his sides.

“It’s . . . not makeup,” he said at last.

Lacey rocked back a little on her stockinged feet. “What?”

He held out his hands, palms up. “It’s not makeup, it’s just the way I am.” Should he offer to let her feel? No, that would probably terrify her. “And this isn’t a basement-I know it’s dark out the windows now, but we’re actually in a tower room. There’s a lot more to this place as well, and you’re welcome to look around. I just brought you to the library because-because it’s warm.” Only a small lie, not really a lie at all.

Lacey was shaking her head back and forth in denial as he talked, eyes darting around the room that she’d already inspected so thoroughly.

“Lacey-”

“No!” She screamed at him, and even though he hadn’t moved toward her he felt stopped by the word and rocked back. “No, none of this is real! It can’t be.”

He made a pained sound low in in throat. He wanted so badly to hold her, to comfort her. His beautiful Belle. She was so scared. But he didn’t know what he could do that wouldn’t cause her more distress.

“Just-just leave me alone!” She closed her eyes, a few tears leaking down her cheeks.

“Go you-you frog-skinned freak!”

Frog skinned? That was . . . hurtful.

Before he could let any of his own hurt and fear and confusion manifest in a bad way, he turned heel and beat a hasty retreat out of the room, gently closing the door behind him an instant before a rapid set of thuds shook the wood door. Her shoes, he supposed, flung at his retreating back.

There was a monster in the library.

*****

He’d left the door unlocked again, and this time it’d born fruit. His magic alerted him to her movement around the castle like a spider in his web sensing the vibrations of near invisible glittering strings. She’d been quiet all night, and most of the morning. He’d sent her more food, but had sensed nothing from the room for hours.

He stopped the spinning wheel with an absent minded gesture of his hand, head turning toward the entrance to the great hall. It took a few minutes, but eventually he heard footsteps. He had a brief moment of panic over what to do, and hastily turned back to the wheel so that he was not caught in the act of waiting for her. If this was not her destination, well, he’d hear the front doors open and could figure out what to do from there.

The great front doors did not open. The footsteps drew closer, slowed, stopped.

He spun vigorously, barely even minding what his hands did as all his attention focused on the woman behind the door slowly swinging open with the softest of creaks.

The great hall looked different then it had before. Looting, indifference, perhaps a curse or two had left the place really quite a mess. He’s cleaned it up mostly by removing anything damaged, doing quite a bit of the work by hand rather than magic. As a result, the room was plainer than it was before, a little less sumptuous a little more . . . normal? He hoped. For a castle anyway. Probably not to a barfly but he hadn’t really anticipated her company.

He could sense her staring at his back, watching him silently for several long moments while he mechanically turned the the wheel and tried not to breathe to hard.

“Hello?” He heard at last, as though she had only just arrived.

He stopped slowly and turned around as affecting faint surprise. “Oh, hello. Do-do come in. I was just about to have tea.” He hadn’t, but the tea cart rolled itself in from the opposite end of the great hall, carrying the teapot, cups, and accoutrement into the room with the quiet rattle of the China and a faint squeak of the wheels at it stopped by the great table.

Lacey looked vaguely ill at the sight of it and he cursed himself mentally for the miscalculation, but she made her way into the hall slowly, heels clicking on the floor until she reached carpeting and with muffled taps made her way to the cart.

She was still wearing what she’d been found in; the blue sequin dress with stockings and towering heels. Her messy updo had fallen or been taken down into a cascade around her pale face. The makeup she’d had on was long gone as well, although he though perhaps the dark circles around her eyes were still traces of that rather than a sign of exhaustion. He couldn’t tell for sure.

“How are you?” He asked quietly.

Lacey was stopped next to the tea cart and was looking at the steam curling up from the teapot rather than at him. With a small shrug that seemed to be directed more at herself than at him she poured a cup and added a spoonful of sugar.

“Fine. I guess. I mean-fine.” She finally answered taking the tea and blowing on it a moment before sipping. Her eyes roamed the room to anywhere but him.

“That’s good, good to hear,” he was nodding a bit frantically, he could tell, but he couldn’t seem to stop. He debated getting up to get himself a cup of tea, or whether that would take him too close to Lacey for her comfort. A small, quiet part of him thought about how Belle would have brought him his cup, pouring his while she poured her own, but he squashed it down. He was lucky Lacey even considered it safe to drink tea served by a beast on a magic trolley.

Lacey wended her way to the table, propping herself against the edge rather than sitting anywhere properly. Taking this as a sign that she didn’t have immediate plans to flee, he cleared his throat unnecessarily and got up--slowly--to go to the tea cart. Lacey seems in no danger of running, screaming, fainting, or throwing hot tea at his face, so he took it as tacit permission to continue.

Once he had his cup in hand, he stood by the cart awkwardly, a thousand and one memories of moments like this and thoughts of Belle and Lacey and here and Storybrooke and everywhere they had been trying to flow through him all at once and he was holding the tide back with one hand while the other held a teacup. The teacup?! No, that wasn’t here, it was another set and he was losing his mind one thread at a time.

He sipped his tea.

“Soooo,” Lacey said, too casually but poor thing, she was clearly trying. “This is an actual castle you’ve got here.”

“Thank you?” He wasn’t sure if that was a compliment.

Lacey gave a small laugh. “Um, yeah. I mean I believe that I’m not trapped in your basement and since you’re telling the truth about that you may just be telling the truth about the rest of it.”

He was nodding again. “I am, Lacey, I swear it.”

“How do you know my name” She was looking at him intensely, only a hint of trepidation in her eyes.

An internal debate of a second and a hundred years. What would Belle want?

The truth then.

“You and I have met before, but because of magic you don’t remember me,” he began. She opened her mouth and he paused, but she closed it again so he continued. “We were in another world, one that is maybe more familiar to you-Storybrooke? In Maine?”

“I-“ she stopped and got a far-off look for a moment. “I don’t actually know. I mean, I know Maine or at least that Maine exists unlike someplace like this.” She gestured around with her free hand so emphatically that her tea sloshed dangerously. “I looked out the window in the tower and saw trees like I’ve never seen before. Plus, there’s like, some kind of little village? With thatched roofs and stones but there’s no roads. No cars. No power lines or airplanes or-or, I don’t know, any of things I think I should be seeing but don’t.” She was starting to sound upset again, so Rumpelstiltskin hastened to explain.

“This is the Enchanted Forest,” he waved briefly toward the wide windows behind him. “It a land with magic, full of people who might sound familiar to you from stories.”

“Like you?” She cocked her head at him. “Rumpelstiltskin, straw into gold and kidnapping babies and all that?”

“Trading for babies,” he said on reflex and closed his eyes briefly. A knee-jerk defense that didn’t make him sound like a monster at all.

Her eyebrows were raised and he hastily added: “I used to trade desperate people for things, including babies, many many years ago. But the babies were just traded to new homes and the like. I was-currying favor, gaining things I thought I needed to get what I wanted. I-I don’t do that anymore.” It wasn’t ideal, but he wasn’t lying and he hopefully wasn’t overwhelming her. It was a fine line to tread.

“What you wanted?” Lacey emphasized the last word in a way he wasn’t sure how to interpret. “And you got it? What you wanted?”

He sipped the tea again. What did he want?

To die.

No, that would scare her for sure and besides, she wanted to know what he had wanted.

“I wanted to find a way to travel through realms,” he said at last. “I was looking for my son, and I thought I could find him a place far from here, much farther than any of the realms I’d travelled before. A Land Without Magic. Also known as Maine,” he couldn't help the wry lilt to his voice.

Lacey gave a surprised little laugh and he risked looking directly at her. Their eyes met, and he lost moments in their familiar blue shine while she looked at him for the first time without any reservations.

“And did you find him? Your son?” Lacey asked. Of course she did. Why wouldn’t she.

His eyes closed again as another tide of memory and feeling. He had to be okay for her.

“Yes.” Quietly, too quietly. “Yes, but he died. It was a long time ago.” He didn’t imagine tears would make his eyes any less terrifying but widening them to stop them from falling probably did. Lose lose, old man. He set his cup back down with a rattle and poured more tea into it. “Anyway, I’ve lived for a very long time and am familiar with many realms, so hopefully I can help figure out how you got here.”

Lacey looked uncomfortable and he was sure she hadn’t bargained on feeling sorry for the scaly creature holding her hostage. Empathy wasn’t something that came easily to Lacey if he recalled. She shifted a little and sipped at her tea. “Uh, thanks for that, then. I don’t really remember much besides being in the woods and then here, so . . . I guess I’m glad I’m not passed out on the forest floor.” Her smile was wan, but he appreciated the effort.

“It’s not terribly comfortable after a while,” he agreed, scrunching his nose up in exaggerated agreement.

Lacey licked her lips several times before starting her inquiries again.

“If we’ve met before, and I don’t remember it because of magic, does that mean we met somewhere other than the land without magic? Somewhere other than Maine?” One eyebrow lift to accompany the weak joke.

“Well, that’s a bit complicated,” he hedged. “Would you like to sit down? I can bring us something to eat as well.” After a moment of hesitation, Lacey nodded and chose a chair at the table. Rumple sent the tea cart away and told it to come back in a few minutes with something to eat. The time would give the illusion that he wasn’t just snapping his fingers to make these things happen, something he still thought he should avoid.

He pulled out the chair from the end of the table, facing Lacey but not sitting too close for her comfort. He flipped the tails of his coat out behind him and sat down, watching her watch him and pretend everything was fine.

“It’s rather a long story.”

******

It was dark again before they finished talking. Lacey was pacing in front of the fire he’d lit, and he summoned more comfortable seating for them as well as more food as the hours stretched on.

All in all, he’s thought Lacey had taken things surprisingly well. There was occasionally more swearing, but not more name calling. She also wasn’t as . . . volatile, as he remembered. It was possible that the absence of alcohol helped in that matter. This Lacey, while not exactly soft, was less hard.

If she was even Lacey. And what was Lacey? A curse, a pile of memories loosely held together for a brief period of time that had hung off of Belle like ill fitting clothes. She’d never had agency of her own, not really. Without Belle, she shouldn’t be; without a Curse, she couldn’t be. So how?

He’d shared most everything with her but his musings on her inability to exist. He’d thrown out the possibilities that Alice had mentioned--pocket universe, a wrinkle in time and space that had caught her up like a bubble in a breeze. Because of that little . . . discretion, his focus on Belle’s time as her was glossed over by saying “I met you while my wife was Cursed and we kept each other company until she came back.” Lacey had eyed him strangely at that, probably questioning what kind of “company” she’d been keeping, but he’d tried to keep his strange face as guileless as possible and hoped the whole ‘this is how things work for fairytale creatures’ ambience he was going for worked in his favor.

Her pacing made him slightly anxious, but not too much. It made sense she’d want to move after sitting for so long, but it did put him in mind of her moving away from him, possibly out of his castle, which he was not comfortable with.

She’d asked a lot of questions about Belle as well, which had also made him nervous at first, until she’d gotten an excited gleam in her eye and smiled at him hugely.

“You two are Beauty and the Beast!” She’d gone so far to snap a finger gun at him.

“Well, yes,” he’d said, startled by her enthusiasm. “As well as several others, actually.”

“Yeah, but that’s awesome.” She’d almost been bouncing in her seat. “Cause that means even though you look like a creepy-crawly your a sweetheart underneath and you two have the best love story ever.”

He’d blinked owlishly at her until she’d calmed down enough to obliquely apologize with a handwave.

“Anyway, keep going.”

And he had. Now that they were all wrapped up, he didn’t know what to at this point. He thought something would occur to him by now, especially with all that talking, but he was drawing a blank.

Not true, he thought, he was still considering running a battery of tests on Lacey in his laboratory  until he’d exhausted his magical knowledge or finally figured out what she was but that was a rather . . . Dark impulse and probably pointless. She was Lacey; he didn’t know how, he didn’t know why, but she was.

His eyes kept tracking her progress. “Would you like more food?” He offered, grasping for something to do.

Lacey shook her head. “Nah, I’m fine. It’s just-if I weren’t here, right now, living all of this, I wouldn’t believe it, you know? And even though I am here right now living it, I still don’t really.” She ran a hand through her tousled hair and tossed him a devil-may-care smile. “Have to admit, never thought my imagination was good enough for all this though.”

He smiled back lightly. “Well, I might not know you well enough to say that for sure, but I think you might have a more imaginative imagination than you give yourself credit for.” Distracted by the thought of some of the things he’d done to keep Lacey’s interest, he knew his words weren’t ideal. But he did mean them genuinely; Lacey had often thought very meanly  of herself beyond her looks and certain bar activities, but he’d struck her as a keen and cunning woman beneath all that hairspray. No reason to let her belittle herself.

“Thanks,” she drawled, but her smile seemed real and he allowed himself to feel it for just a second without overthinking it to death.

They were silent for a while after that, Lacey standing next to the fire, gazing into its depths like she’d done in the library for so long yesterday. Yesterday? Surely they had spent years here already?

Rumpelstiltskin couldn’t help it, didn’t try to, he watched her in the firelight and yearned.

“You’re welcome to stay,” he said quietly into their moment. “You have a home here, as long as you need one.”

Something seemed to melt out of her shoulders, a tension he had mistaken for her naturally tight nature.

“Thanks,” she murmured to the fire, and then glanced up at him, eyes brighter than humanly possible with the flames’ glow.

“What’s next?”

*****

Heels clacking on the floor of the shop, Belle sipped her styrofoam cup of tea as she flipped the sign to OPEN. ‘Where to Next?’ Travel Agency was doing pretty good business, even in the age of internet booking, mostly due to it’s proprietor’s dedication to researching the best vacation options and all the pertinent details down to the smallest measure. It hadn’t been in Hyperion Heights long, but it was looking to become a fixture in the neighborhood.

Of course, Hyperion Heights hadn’t been for very long, Belle thought to herself. She’d realized almost right away, after the Dark Curse, that this place was not going to be the self-contained terrarium curse that Storybrooke had been, at least from the sounds of Rumple’s stories. She’d loved those stories, the layering of Lacey over her making her crave the familiarity of it. Now that she remembered who she was-several times over, in fact-she loved it for the unfamiliarity of it, the quaintness of a small town in a Land Without Magic.

Hyperion Heights had been built by a less deft hand than the Evil Queen she supposed. She knew that the woman here-Roni, in this world-wasn’t the Evil Queen that had taken her prisoner. She wasn’t even the Evil Queen that Rumpelstiltskin had known at the moment. Her Evil Queen was apparently long dead, killed by Snow and Charming, but she still felt a chill in her spine if she looked at Roni too long, and so the bar wasn’t a place she frequented all that often, much to buried Lacey’s displeasure.

She’s pretty certain she’s got a good bulk of it figured out, how she-as-Lacey went to bed in the Dark Castle and woke up in Hyperion Heights, a head of full of memories like a shifting kaleidoscope. She could feel new Curse memories on top, like a layer of oil on a puddle, trying to tell her how to live in Hyperion Heights. She’d been able to step over them, noting with distaste how dismal a person she was meant to be here while picking and choosing the bits she needed to get by day to day. Instead, she went over everything she’d learned as Lacey, reunited with her True Love when she wasn’t herself and he, apparently, wasn’t him. Or her him.

She shook her head. Okay, maybe more of it was confused than she’d like to admit. From her point of view, she’d been with Rumpelstiltskin after her deal to save her people, he’d thrown her out, she’d adventured despondently for a while, and then Regina had imprisoned her. One day, when things must have been getting desperate for the Evil Queen with the Charmings bearing down,, she’d strode into Belle’s dungeon with a crystal ball. Belle doesn’t even remember the Queen particularly gloating in that moment, just hastily throwing some sort of glowing powder on her and then with a sweeping gesture, Belle knew no more. She felt like she had been trapped in the place just between dreaming and waking for quite some time--thirty years from the sound of it--and when she’d woken up, well. She hadn’t been her. She’d been Lacey.

The Queen testing her Dark Curse, perhaps? The one she’d never been able to cast. That Queen hadn’t, but another had. Belle sighed and sat down in front of her computer, eyes closed momentarily as her thoughts circled around the same old issues again and again. The Queen from her realm, the Wish Realm, never had a chance to cast her curse, but she’d clearly been preparing for so long, she must have had some elements in place ready for the time. As for the crystal ball, Belle assumed it’s where she’d been, frozen in time as the years passed and events played out while the world thought her dead.

She opened her eyes and bit her lip in consternation. The Rumple who’d found her, when she was Lacey, had told her about the Wish Realm, and how there was another Rumpelstiltskin there, a Dark One driven mad by decades of imprisonment, who’d never found his son and had lost her completely (or so he thought.) Rumple couldn’t know that she was the missing Wish Belle, any more than she could know she was any kind of Belle while Regina’s Curse memories left her little more than a confused tourist.

Now that she was here though-she was able to see how all the stories Rumple told Lacey about his Belle and even his Lacey filled in the gaps of what she knew. Whoever had cast this new Curse lacked an eye for detail, and Belle had enough memory magic bashing around inside her head to buck off their half-baked attempt at rewriting her again.

She appeared to be the only one “awake” at the moment, but she wasn’t worried. It wouldn’t last long, she had faith in that. Though Lacey hadn’t had the same fondness for books that Belle did, she’s spent quite a bit of time reading books from the library Rumple had first brought her to, gaining cursory knowledge in all kinds of magical shenanigans. All those months at the Dark Castle, listening to Rumple’s stories, reading and talking about magic with him and Alice, who visited frequently to regale Lacey with stories of far-off lands and strange encounters, gave her the confidence to know that her people were more than a match for a lazy curse-caster. Until then, she would keep a sharp eye out, and go over everything Rumple had told her until they could break free of this place.

She thought again, of the Rumpelstiltskin from her realm, the tortured creature who believed her gone for good, and couldn’t help but think that maybe there was a way for her to get back to him, and show him that there was still light in the darkness, that there was still hope. Rumple had warned her away from most Wish realm individuals, as he called them, besides Alice and her father, Hook, if she came across them. He warned her that he was not a popular person, any version of him, and many people would try to harm her as a way to get to him. Because they were such good friends.

Belle smiled at the thought, as she watched the squad car pull up to the curb outside the shop. It was a daily habit for the detective, who fetched his coffee from the cafe two doors down.

Friends was definitely what they had been, despite Lacey’s rather awkward crush on her unusually looking roommate and his mourning of a beloved wife while her doppelgänger stood right in front of him. Poor Rumple, he’d been such a confused bundle of emotions and barely-there sanity, and Lacey hadn’t exactly been subtle. But she thought that perhaps her presence had had a centering effect on him, while he worked out his Guardian issues and contemplated how to get back to his wife.

Nothing like the cold, calculating man outside. Belle had never had any trouble with Detective Weaver, but she’d heard enough to know that she was probably better off keeping her distance from him for now. She’d say hello politely enough, exchange the usual pleasantries, but despite her desire to be around her friend again, to dig and see if Rumple was hidden underneath Weaver’s leather jackets and bad attitude, she stayed away.

Weaver slammed the door shut as he got out of the car. He seemed more angry than usual and Belle raised her eyebrow as she saw Hook-although he wouldn’t be Hook here, would he? Her secondary Curse memories were nudged and yes, he was Officer Rogers here, although from the looks of it, he’d just made detective and been saddled with Weaver as a partner. Some more careful nudging, and she was pretty certain this was Alice’s father, not the Hook from Rumple’s realm. She thought of her friend, trapped as Tilly, confused and upset most of the time, darting about the streets like a willow-the-wisp, and hoped that she had her father were able to find each other again soon.

Weaver glanced into the shop, and his eyes caught hers as she stared out from her desk. Smiling wryly, she lifted her tea in a small salute and took a sip. Weaver hesitated a moment, then gave her a small jerking nod as a hello in return. Rogers came around from his side of the car and the two men headed off to start their day.

Belle’s tea had gone cold while she was lost in her thoughts, and she put the cup down after her little display for Weaver. Pieces were starting to come together, she’d known they would.

She needed a little more patience and a good degree of caution, but she also planned on doing the brave thing when the time come. Rumpelstiltskin, both her own and the one who had belonged to her in another life, needed her.

She couldn’t wait to meet them.