“Mmmm,” Belle moaned. “Gods, that feels incredible.” She arched her back as Rumple’s clever fingers massaged her nipples into tight peaks. Belle threaded her fingers through his hair, tugging his head down for another kiss.
“I love you, Belle,” he said against her mouth. Hands hot on her skin, he traced her collar bone and nudged her shoulders, shifting her backwards with a gentle push.
“Don’t stop,” she commanded between kisses, unbuckling his belt and slipping her hand into his trousers as they stumbled towards the bed in the workroom.
He gave a pained chuckle as he flirted with the hem of her skirt. “Never.”
A sudden click and the whine of rusty hinges was like a splash of cold water, cooling their ardor. Belle threw her arms around Rumple’s neck, nearly toppling the velvet curtain that framed the workroom. “What was that? Some kind of animal?” she asked, heart pounding in her throat.
“No.” He inclined his head toward the door. “Savior magic.”
Belle froze in disbelief. The locked door of the pawnshop swung wide, cracking into the wall and knocking the artwork and clocks gracing the walls askew. Emma Swan and Snow White sailed through the entrance and David shuffled in behind mother and daughter, head trained on the polished walnut floor.
“Again?” Ignoring their unwelcome visitors, Belle turned to Rumple, eyes blown wide with anger. “This is unbelievable—it’s the third time this week.”
“Buttons.” Rumple said with a cough, sliding in front of Belle to shield her from the Charming family’s prying eyes. Belle looked down at her gaping shirt, feeling Snow’s heavy stare on her pink, polka-dotted bra.
“Lipstick,” Belle said, spying a red splotch on the side of Rumple’s neck. She handed him a handkerchief, then fumbled with the eyelets on her blouse. Attacking the buttons, Belle glowered at Snow—she was always the ringleader and today was no different. The glow of triumph on the harpy’s face was a dead giveaway. “What is it this time?” Belle asked airily. “Babysitting? Blackmail? Hangnail?”
“A tiny favor.” Snow shrugged, flinging her coat on the display case behind her. “Emma and Killian’s engagement party is in a few days. We thought Rumplestiltskin could devise a spell to make flowers fall from the ceiling.” She clasped her hands and beamed, her smile suddenly melting as if she remembered who she was talking to.
“What about your real family?” Belle asked. “In your time of need, I’d expect them to come rushing to your aid.”
David toed the floor with his boot and Emma winced, but Belle’s mock sympathy sailed over Snow’s head. “We would have asked Regina, but she and Henry are away on a mother-son holiday.” Snow gave Emma a fond look. “Of course the bride-to-be can’t perform magic for her own party. That wouldn’t be right.”
“And needing my husband for this foolish errand required you to bust through our door because...” Belle let the question hang like a razor-sharp icicle.
“We heard moaning.” Snow squinted at Gold, eyes glittering with hatred. The woman didn’t even have the grace to feign embarrassment for barging in during a private moment. “We thought Gold might be killing you or something.”
Belle took a threatening step forward. “Unless it’s possible to die of pleasure, I don’t see how. Gods, don’t you people ever have sex?”
Snow sputtered and whipped a small calendar out of her handbag. “Of course we do! See?” She stabbed at a date in the following week. “Right here.”
No one spoke or made eye contact until a choking sound rent the silence, and Belle watched Rumple smother a laugh. Her own lips twitching with mirth, Belle threaded her arm through his. “I think I’ve made my point.”
“Um, maybe we shouldn’t have come,” Emma said. Backpedaling, she collided with a shelf of antique books, almost toppling them in her haste to find the exit. “Mom, Dad, I’m going to Granny’s. There’s a grilled cheese and hot chocolate calling my name.”
“Bye, honey,” David said as Emma banged out of the shop.
Snow flapped a hand at her daughter in dismissal, keeping her frosty stare trained on Belle. “You’re married to the town monster and you’re insulting me?”
“I’m not insulting you, I’m insulting your sex life,” Belle said with a saccharine smile.
“Why, you little—” Hands curled into claws, Snow lunged for Belle, but David snaked an arm around his wife’s waist, yanking her back against his chest.
“Ladies, please!” David snapped with an apologetic glance at Rumple. “All that’s missing is the mud. Gold, I begged them not to barge in here unannounced.”
“Look how well that turned out. Much as Belle and I adore an audience, twenty-two interruptions in one month is rather extreme.” Rumple smirked at Charming, but there was little malice in his words. “Can’t you control your women, Princeling?”
“No better than you can control yours, my friend,” Charming said with a lazy smile, jerking his thumb toward the side door. “What say we sneak out for a beer?”
“David!” Snow whined, jerking out of his grasp and crossing her arms over her chest.
“Nice try, David,” Belle said. “But you gentlemen aren’t sneaking off to the Rabbit Hole for a pint with that animal on the loose.”
“Animal? What animal?” Snow asked, gasping.
Belle shuddered, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Can you keep a secret?” she asked.
Gaze wide, Snow nodded and stepped closer.
“There’s been a Drop bear sighting,” Belle said. “I’ve never seen evidence of one outside my father’s kingdom. Even then, it was mostly rumors. Drop bears are rare predators, more elusive than ogres. Rumple, have you ever seen one?”
“No, but I have a feeling I’m going to,” Rumple said mildly, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“So they’re dangerous?” Snow squeaked and clutched the scarf around her neck.
“Vicious,” Belle said, and then looked at Rumple, who was staring at her askance. “They look like koalas, but are more closely related to the Tasmanian Tiger and resemble a leopard in size and strength.”
“Koalas are tiny and adorable,” Charming said with a wistful smile. “And they eat plants.”
“Not these.” Belle cringed. “Drop bears, scientific name Thylarctos plummetus, are over 250 pounds and carnivorous. Powerful jaws; huge, sharp claws; and fast. Known for attacking any time of the day or night, they will wait in a tree for months, waiting for suitable prey to walk by. Once they have a kill, they will let the meat rot for a couple of days before devouring it. They can flatten a man in the blink of an eye and turn him into a blood-soaked mess within seconds.”
“They eat people?” Snow asked, swaying slightly on her feet.
“Yes,” Belle said with a solemn nod. “We’d advise staying close to home. Avoid the outskirts of the forest and clusters of shrubbery. And whatever you do, don’t walk under tall trees where drop bears live and hide. That’s how they earned their name—because they attack from above, dropping down onto the heads of unsuspecting prey.”
“This sounds serious,” Snow turned as pale as her name, eyes round in her peaked face. “Should we call a town meeting?”
“That would be unwise,” Belle said with a frown. “Drop bears are keenly intelligent, and increased human activity makes them even more active. The more people who know about this problem, the greater the danger to our community.”
“We’ll keep this locked down,” Charming said, throwing Rumple a hopeful look. “And get rid of it on our own. Snow, you’re an excellent tracker. This could be a good exercise in team-building for all of us.”
“A drop bear isn’t any ordinary foe,” Belle said, pleased for an opening to dismiss Snow’s skill. “You can’t just shoot an arrow through its heart.”
“Don’t you have a magical solution?” Snow snapped at Gold. “Some sort of spell? A demon? One of your cloven hooves?”
Blood simmering, Belle fisted her hands in her skirt. Wasn’t it enough that Storybrooke’s citizens came running to Rumple for every need and whim, no matter how insignificant? With the exception of David, the townspeople treated him with contempt. None, however, were meaner to her husband than Snow White. Smashing her knuckles into this pompous whiner’s mouth would be soul-satisfying.
A steady presence at her back, Rumple placed calming hands on Belle’s shoulders, massaging the tensed muscles while keeping her from vaulting over the counter. How did he stay so reasonable when Snow was so infuriating? Hot tears pricked the corners of her eyes.
“I’m fresh out of cloven hoof at the moment, but I shall do all I can to protect our fair town, Your Majesty. Sadly, I’ve never encountered one of these beasties before,” Rumple said, breath tickling Belle’s neck. She heard the smile in his voice as he added, “My clever wife is the expert.”
“There must be something we can do to stop this animal.” Snow threw up her hands. “Emma’s engagement party is in five days, and Granny’s been cooking and baking for weeks. We’re serving champagne laced with fairy dust.” Tears choked her voice.
Belle resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Here,” she said, rifling through a drawer. She presented Snow with a fat, red tube. “This should protect you against attacks for now.”
“Colgate Optic White? This is toothpaste,” Snow said, her face clouded with confusion.
“Rub some behind your ears,” Belle instructed. “A small dollop every few hours. You can try Vegemite, too. Both are folk remedies—no proof that they work as repellants—but it’s worth a shot. Meanwhile, stay home for a few days and don’t tell anyone about the threat. You’ll only make things worse if you spread the news around town. Rumple and I will work together to eliminate the drop bear.”
“If you’re sure you can solve the problem on your own,” Snow said, shifting her eyes between Rumple and Belle.
“I’ve just recalled something,” Rumple said. "One hundred and fifty years ago, I met a man who said a drop bear must be killed by hand under a full moon with a bullet fashioned of pure gold. I can make one with my spinning wheel, but it’s going to take some time.”
“See?” Belle said, giving Snow a triumphant glare. “Consider it handled.”
Snow flounced out of the shop with a cold nod, pulling David behind her.
“A drop bear?” Rumple propped his elbows on the kitchen counter and smirked at his wife. Wearing an old apron from the Dark Castle and a beatific smile, Belle stood at the stove dishing up mouthwatering servings of chicken and dumplings, his favorite dinner. He inhaled the pleasant scents of chicken, spices, yeast—and bribery. What mischief was she plotting? “I’ve never heard of a beast like that, and I’ve traveled to many realms.”
“It’s a myth, my love. From a land on the other side of this world called Australia. Their countrymen invented it to prank tourists.” Belle set their dinner plates on the table and wound her arms around his neck. Her tiny hands buried themselves in his hair, making his scalp tingle. “I thought maybe we could frighten the Charmings into staying away from us for a few days. With the help of your magic, of course.”
“Sweetheart, I’m supposed to be the conniving, manipulative bastard in this relationship.” He stuck out his lower lip, pretending to pout. “You’re ruining my image.”
“I’m tired of the way they treat you, so I’m indulging my evil streak,” she said, peppering his face with feather-light kisses. “Learned from the best.”
He chuckled at her guilelessness—she knew so little of evil—but he couldn’t deny that her valiant efforts to protect him smoothed the jagged places in his soul. “They’re not kind to you, either,” he said. “Unless Snow is greasing you to be her babysitter. But if you want to escape the great and powerful savior and her doting mama, what about heading out to the cabin?” he asked, capturing her distracting mouth with a brief, hard kiss.
“Remember, we’re letting Papa borrow it while his apartment is renovated,” she said, nuzzling his neck.
“That’s right.” He frowned and caressed her flushed cheek, warm from standing over the stove. “Maybe we should go out of town, sweetheart. New York? Paris? You’ve always wanted to see the world, and I’ve longed to show it to you.”
Belle beamed and caught his hand, his heart tripping over the depth of love in her eyes. He was daily overcome that she had chosen a life by his side. The gods had truly blessed him with the gift of this remarkable woman.
“Rumple, there’s nothing I would love more than to see the world with you.” She traced the lines on his palm with the pad of her thumb, her innocent touch making his breath ragged. “But why should we let them chase us away? I know Charming is your friend—and I like him because he’s good to you—but Snow is out of hand. This isn’t the Enchanted Forest. She is not the bloody queen and we are not her royal subjects. Thanks to her and Emma barging in on us and encouraging their friends to do the same, we have no time to ourselves. Let’s put them in their place.”
“What do you propose, my dark temptress?” he asked, warming to her seduction.
“Try the drop bear scheme with me?” she coaxed, batting her thick eyelashes. “Only for a few days. I’ll provide all the information to trick them into believing us, and you supply the brilliant, magical creativity. It might be fun.”
“I don’t know,” he said, toying with a fork. Pranks seldom succeeded in doing anything more than backfiring. “People don’t change, Belle.”
“They do if you teach them the right lesson.” More enticing than the meal on the table, his delectable wife pressed closer, rubbing her breasts against his chest in slow, maddening circles. “And in the meantime, we’ll have lots of privacy.”
“Privacy,” he echoed on a strangled gasp as her hands wandered lower to stroke the juncture of his hip and thigh. Dinner and drop bears ceased to matter as the edges of his vision blurred, his world narrowing to nothing but the woman in his arms. Lowering his mouth to hers, he whispered, “When do we start?”
Shelving the final pile of returned books, Belle skipped down the aisles of the vacant library, pleased that everything was in order. A mug of tea in hand, she plopped down at the circulation desk to revel in the quiet swish of flipping pages. She checked her watch. Good. There was plenty of time to alternate between drop bear research and a Christopher Moore novel. The children were in school, Storybrooke’s citizens were moving through their day without incident, and best of all, the Charming women were nowhere in sight.
It had been a day and a half since Belle had warned Snow and David about the legendary drop bear, and the spontaneous plot was working to perfection. All day yesterday, she and Rumple had stayed home together reading, watching Netflix, and cuddling on the overstuffed sofa in the den. They’d romped around in cozy flannel pajamas, eaten cold pizza and Rocky Road ice cream out of the carton, and sipped heavy crystal glasses filled with Rumple’s finest Scotch. No calls, no texts, and the doorbell hadn’t rung once.
Rounding out their perfect day, Belle giggled like a child as she and Rumple sneaked around in the dark, recording mysterious animal noises and conjuring blood trails in the wooded area behind the Charming home. Evidence of the drop bear’s existence was needed in case Snow decided to called their bluff. And this morning, they’d indulged in a bubble bath and stayed in bed until 10 a.m. for the first time in months. Perhaps they could treat themselves to an early evening, or even a late lunchtime rendezvous?
The peal of the telephone interrupted Belle’s fantasy of strutting to the pawnshop clad in nothing but a jacket and Rumple’s favorite tie.
“Hey, baby,” she purred, picking up the phone and twirling a tendril of hair around her fingertip.
“Oh! Papa. Hi.” Belle cleared her throat and flattened her palm against one of her flaming cheeks. “How did you know I was here? Are you enjoying your stay at the cabin?”
“I’m sorry, you’re breaking up, Papa. You said Snow called you?” Belle asked. “You’re in a tree stand watching for what?” The sharp twitter of birds and the rustling of leaves in the background confirmed her father’s location.
“Snow White told you there was a drop bear?” Belle repeated, grinding her teeth. That witch couldn’t keep a secret to save her life.
“No, Papa, I don’t know what kinds of flowers drop bears are allergic to,” she said, meeting Rumple’s wary expression as he walked into the library and locked the door behind him. Her husband’s suit was tattered, his tie was in shreds, and bits of entrails decorating his lapels. “Yes, I’ll do some research. Call you later,” Belle told her father, and slammed the phone back into the cradle.
“Oh, for the love of Zeus. That was my father,” she told Rumple, rushing around the desk to search his haggard face. “Are you all right?”
“I figured as much. Yes, I’m fine, sweetheart,” he said, grasping her arm to steer her towards the stacks. “Just planting more paw-prints and bloodstains.”
“Those aren’t real?” Belle wrinkled her nose at the fetid smell of blood and sinew perfuming the air around Rumple as he removed his jacket, opened his waistcoat, and ducked behind the shelves of books in the fiction section, pulling her down with him. “They seem authentic.”
“’Course not,” he said, sitting down on the floor to shuck his waistcoat and unbutton his shirt.
“Ooooh, you want to play this game?” she asked as he continued to strip. “I’m quite useful at this particular brand of magic," she breathed, crawling closer to dip her fingers beneath the waistband of his trousers.
Rumple stilled her hands, peeking through the stacks to the windows at the front of the library. “Not now, Belle. We’re hiding. I’m fairly certain Snow and Emma were following me and all this,” he gestured at his trashed clothes, “was for their benefit. They’re headed this way with a mob of the community’s finest.”
“I think they’re already here.” Belle stood up with a grimace, staring in horror at the throng of people milling outside the library. There was Clark alias Sneezy, the owner of Dark Star Pharmacy, handing out tubes of toothpaste and tubs of Vegemite. Emma and David were controlling the crowd, and lording her authority over all was Snow White. She shouted into a megaphone, her mouth moving a mile a minute and free hand gesticulating wildly.
“When our illustrious citizens find out this was all a stunt, it won’t be pretty. Belle, I hate to say I told you so—” Rumple’s cynical eyes turned soft and apologetic as he looked at her.
“Then don’t,” she said, her tone pleading. She was not ready to give up on the drop bear yet. “Wait! Why do they have to find out? Could you conjure some pictures as proof?”
“All right.” Rumple snapped his fingers, and fanned out a bundle of photographs featuring him running from a massive, koala-like creature, terror in his eyes and tree branches flying in his wake. “Are these acceptable?”
“Perfect,” Belle said, flipping through the photos. She pressed a hard kiss to his mouth. “You’re a genius, Rumple!”
“We’d better open the door,” he said. Members of the crowd were pressing their noses to the glass as they peered inside the library. “They’re salivating to kill the beast.”
“You wait back here,” Belle said, formulating a plan. “I’ll deal with Snow and the rest of them. Then you can drag yourself in through the service entrance, looking like you’ve had the battle of your life with the animal. Once everyone sees how hard we’ve been working to get rid of the drop bear, they’ll congratulate us and leave us alone. Give me a moment to get in position and magic the door open.”
“Sweetheart…” Rumple said, trailing off with a groan.
“This will work,” she said, wishing she felt as confident as she sounded as she rushed to the circulation desk, smoothing her skirt.
“Belle!” Snow cried, running into the library and slamming the door behind her with a dramatic sigh. “The situation has escalated. There’s a trail of blood all over my front porch. We need to put a stop to that monster once and for all.”
“Which is precisely why I asked you to stay home,” Belle said through gritted teeth. She covered her copy of Drop Bears for Dummies with an issue of Vogue. “Drop bears are cagey, and now that this one knows you’re gunning for it, it’s using scare tactics. Often they attack smaller animals and plant bits of carcass in the locations where they plan to attack next.”
“I’m losing faith in your methods. Charming and I need to step in and protect the town,” Snow said, tapping her foot. “You must have some research materials we can use.”
“Suddenly everyone’s interested in library services.” Belle bit out. “We’ve promised to take care of the problem, so what more do you need? Search the library if you must, but I don’t have any more intelligence about these creatures than what I’ve already offered.” She kicked the handful of reference books and magical tomes she’d been studying under the counter.
Snow narrowed her eyes at the thump of the books hitting the ground. She lifted her chin, straining to see over the counter. “What’s going on back there?”
“I asked you not to create hysteria,” Belle said, changing the subject. She pointed at the mob standing outside the library doors. “How many secrets have you been asked to keep and failed? We should have known better than to trust you.”
Rumple chose that moment to hobble in from his hiding place in the storage room, moaning and dragging his left leg behind him. His face was tattooed in bruises, his fists and clothing torn and bloody.
“Rumple! My gods, what happened this time?” Belle asked, expecting Snow to coo and fuss over Rumple’s bravery.
Snow didn’t even spare him a glance.
“Do you want to know what I think?” the princess asked, her voice low and menacing.
“Not really.” Belle shrugged.
“I think you’re putting on an act; trying to make a fool of me. Every piece of so-called evidence you’d presented has been from your own hands. No one else has seen this animal, only you. You and the Dark One. Not a ringing endorsement of credibility,” Snow said.
“Are you calling me a liar?” Belle asked.
“No. I’m calling you the wife of a liar.” Snow fixed her stare on Rumple, her jugular vein throbbing. “A known liar, and the most conniving, evil, rotten excuse for a human being I’ve ever met.”
“Don’t strain yourself, Your Majesty,” Rumple leaned against a bookshelf with a saucy half-smile.
But Belle wasn’t going to allow Snow’s vitriol to stand.
“How dare you?” Belle asked, shoving the photographs of Rumple escaping the drop bear under Snow’s nose. Tears crept into her voice. Her face burned, her stomach twisting in misery. “You—you hypocrite. You’d never have even met Charming if not for Rumple. Emma would never have been born. I can’t count the number of ways he’s helped you over the years—in all realms. And you have the audacity to question his reputation?”
“You’re forgetting something, bookworm,” Snow said as she skimmed through the photos. “I’ve known the Dark One for a long time—longer than you, in fact. And he’s duped you before.”
Belle trembled, feeling vulnerable and foolish, but she wasn’t going to let Snow intimidate her. “Rumple has a claw slash on his ass. Do you want him to drop his drawers and show you?” Belle asked, shaking with fury. “It’s probably the most action you’ve seen in a while.”
“Produce some better evidence than this,” Snow said, sneering, “or I’ll have the Dark One run out of town faster than you can say Rumplestiltskin.” She tossed the snapshots back on the desk.
“Get out!” Belle choked out the words on a sob and heaved a first edition of The Hobbit at Snow’s head.
“Did you take down the power lines yet?” Belle asked around a bite of salmon at dinner that evening.
“What?” Rumple shot her a blank look and bent his head toward his wineglass, swirling the ruby liquid.
“We’re the only two people in town who understand how to use the Internet,” Belle said, “but in case Snow follows through on her threat to do research, we need to cut access. Make it look like the drop bear chewed through the power lines.” Sauntering to the sideboard she picked up a dusty, leather-bound tome. “Listen, I’ve found this spell…it’s simple. All we have to do is trap a small animal like a chipmunk or a squirrel and we transform it into a drop bear. Voila, Queenie has her proof and we have vindication.” Proud of her discovery, she sat down in her chair and smiled.
“That’s right, no.” Rumple dropped his fork to the plate with a clatter, his meal all but untouched. “There’s nothing ‘simple’ about transfiguration. It’s the most scientific and sophisticated form of magic, and all the steps have to be completed with careful precision to be successful.”
“You turn people into objects and animals all the time,” Belle reasoned, thumbing through the spell book. “Snails. Pigs. Roses.” She smiled at his surprised look. “Didn’t think I knew about Gaston, hmmm?”
He shook his head as if to clear it. “Belle, that isn’t my point. You’ve lost sight of the objective. You’re starting to believe your own lies.”
“What does that mean?” Belle dabbed at her mouth with a napkin.
“It means I’ve been there,” he said, coming around the dining room table to crouch beside her. He turned her hands over, kissing each palm. “I recognize the slide into darkness when I see it.”
“You don’t believe we can pull this off,” Belle said, feeling betrayed. She’d thought they were a team.
“Sweetheart, no one trusts in your brilliance more than I, but no, I don’t,” he said, still cradling her hands in his. “Against my better judgement, I went along with this drop bear charade because it was important to you, but it’s time to accept defeat.”
Belle snatched her hands away as if he’d burned her and shot to her feet to collect their dinner plates. “I can’t. That shrew is blaming it all on you—when it was my idea—the way she and her family do with everything that goes wrong in this town. How can you be so calm?”
“Because I know what I am. People have never cared for me, Belle,” he said, following her into the kitchen. “I’m used to it and I’m fine. The question is, are you?”
“Excuse me?” She hurled the plates in the sink and turned the water on full force, then whirled around to glare at him. “So it’s my fault?”
“I didn’t say that at all.” He shook his head. “I have you and one friend; that’s enough for me. I’m content, and have no fucks to give that the princess and the savior don’t issue me gold-sealed supper invitations,” he said.
“Unacceptable!” she shouted. “They’re-they’re supposed to give people a chance. That’s what heroes do.” The flash of pain on Rumple’s face made her smash her lips together.
“Is that what this is about? I’m not a hero?” His mouth twisted into a facsimile of a smile and he waggled a finger at her. “That’s it, isn’t it? You can’t bear to be shackled to a monster they don’t approve of, so you’ll make one of your own.”
“No!” Belle shook her head hard, hairpins pinging to the floor. She opened the refrigerator, welcoming the blast of cold air. “It’s nothing to do with you. Rumple, I love you—for the man you are and for the man you want to be. All I want is some respect for our privacy and our love. Is that so much to ask?”
“We should have left this town the day we married,” he said, resentment seeping into his voice as he moved behind her to turn off the faucet. “Moved away and never looked back.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do,” Belle said, growing desperate. She turned to face him, squeezing his shoulders. “Think of the transfiguration spell as a final effort to prove ourselves. If it doesn’t pan out, we’ll pack our belongings and never return. Make Papa come to us for an annual visit. Only once a year. I promise.” She offered him a tearful smile.
Rumple crossed his arms over his chest and stepped out of her arms. “I’m sorry. You’ll have no more aid from me in this ridiculous endeavor. Though I love you more than my own life, I won’t lower myself to gain the approval of Snow White and Emma Swan. And you shouldn’t, either.”
“Rumple, please?” Belle asked, wincing at the wheedling thread in her voice. Belle hated whining. She sounded like...no. She squashed the thought. She was nothing like Snow.
“The Belle I love is more concerned with caring for people and experiencing a full, beautiful life than she is with being in the right,” Rumple said, hovering in the archway, a knowing look plastered on his face. Sometimes it drove her insane, the way he looked straight into her soul, mining all the dark and bitter places. “What is it you always say? ‘It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.’”
“Don’t throw my words back at me,” Belle said icily. “Maybe I’ve changed.”
“People don’t change, sweetheart.” Rumple gave her a sad smile. “You’re better than this. We both know it. But I’m a patient man. When you’re ready to let go of this provincial attitude and see the world, I’ll be waiting.”
Stifling a sob, she turned her back on him, fat tears pouring down her face.
For the rest of the evening, she sulked in the den and he closeted himself in his office. Sighing, she punched random buttons on the remote, picked at her bowl of popcorn, and stared unseeing at the flickering television screen. She’d set this drop bear scheme in motion because she wanted a handful of quiet days with Rumple, her favorite person in all the realms. Strange; this wasn’t the sort of silence she’d had in mind.
Rumple awoke at 4 a.m., disquiet thrumming in his spirit. They’d gone to bed angry, he and Belle, something they swore they would never do. Aching for her warmth, he reached out to draw her into his open arms. But her side of the mattress was empty, the cold dent in the pillow the only evidence that she’d come to bed.
Calling out to her, he searched the house, combing every room. Even the basement was vacant. The cool fall air smelled like rain and trouble.
Where could she be?
Rumple returned to the master suite, fumbling in the dark for his clothes. Belle was in danger; he knew it in his bones. She had gone off on this foolhardy transfiguration mission alone to prove his honor. What a bastard he was for twisting her intentions.
Hitting the streets, he followed his hunch, creeping down the roads in his car, wipers on full blast as rain pounded against the car. Main Street was in shambles—storefronts battered, glass littering the wet blacktop, and sidewalks scattered with soaked papers and chunks of food. It looked like a wild animal had ravaged the business district. He cringed. Perhaps Snow White would see a drop bear in the flesh after all.
Worried for Belle, he cursed under his breath as he patrolled Main Street looking for blood. But he found no traces that someone had been wounded.
A piece of blue fabric caught his eye and he crossed the street to snatch it, pressing the soft, wet material to his nose. It was a scrap of the blouse Belle had been wearing earlier today. Tucking it into his pocket, he returned to the Cadillac and magicked himself dry.
Breathing hard, he pulled to a stop in front of Granny’s Diner, whispering a fervent prayer that he would find Belle and destroy the creature she’d created before daybreak. Unless…had it dragged her into the forest using the powerful forearms and piercing teeth Belle had described, ripping her to shreds? Had it killed her, turning against its maker the way Dr. Frankenstein’s brother had? Head in hands, Rumple swallowed a mouthful of vomit.
A knock on the passenger window startled him, and he whipped his head up, coming face-to-face with David Nolan. Rumple unlocked the door, and David slid into the passenger seat, dripping all over the leather, his forehead scrunched in a concerned frown.
“No time for a chat,” Rumple whispered, miserable. “I have to stop this animal before something terrible happens.”
“Gold, let me help,” David said, laying a hand on his shoulder.
One look at his friend’s earnest face and all was clear—David knew the truth. Rumple snapped his eyes back to the windshield. “Look, Princeling…” he said, not knowing where to start. This was his only relationship outside of Belle and he’d screwed both of them up. Again.
“You don’t need to explain,” David said, removing his wet raincoat. “And you don’t owe me an apology. As a matter of fact, I owe you one.”
“Why?” Incredulous, Rumple slackened his grip on the steering wheel.
David shook his head. “You’re too accustomed to being treated with contempt and indifference,” he said. “I haven’t been a good friend, standing on the sidelines while my family walks all over you and Belle. A true friend would have defended and encouraged you.”
Rumple barked a harsh laugh, blinking back tears. “That’s what Belle said, and now I have no idea where she is or if…” he trailed off, unwilling to consider anymore gruesome possibilities.
“But I do,” David said. “Turns out there was a break-in at Granny’s tonight. A certain drop bear ransacked the diner’s supply of hamburgers and iced tea. Come on, I’ll take you to her.”
True to David’s word, Belle was handcuffed to the worktable in the pawnshop, and in a cage on the workbench was a chipmunk, chattering between nibbles of acorn.
Rumple flipped to the page in the spell book Belle had tried to show him at dinner. As Rumple had suspected it might, the spell had gone awry. Rather than transforming the chipmunk into the drop bear, Belle had transfigured herself. Now she resembled an overgrown, orange-furred koala bear. Sprawled on the floor amongst the remains of ten pounds of hamburger meat and puddles of iced tea, she sniffled, her wide, moist black nose twitching at his approach.
It would have been a comical sight if she hadn’t looked so forlorn.
What right had he to laugh anyway? If he hadn’t dismissed her, none of this would have happened.
“I‘ll release this little guy back into the wild,” David said, carting the chipmunk out.
“Did you bring me breakfast from Granny’s, too?” Rumple asked Belle, hoping she could understand in her animal state. He crept closer, head down and cocked to the side. Caution was paramount. This was Belle, he knew, yet the primal instincts of a wild beast rippled beneath the surface.
With tentative hands, Rumple reached out to stroke her ears, running his fingers out to the tips.
Belle recoiled and hissed at the touch, displaying her oversized, razor-sharp canines.
“Oh, Belle.” Determined to reassure them both, he stared into her eyes—Belle’s eyes, despite the rest of her outward appearance. “Everything is going to be all right, sweetheart. We’ll fix this.”
She gave a pitiful snuffle and pawed at the floor, the tranquilizer David had lifted from the animal shelter making her drowsy. Settling into the corner behind his spinning wheel, she fell asleep.
David smiled from across the workroom, maintaining a respectful distance as he paged through books, looking for a way to bring back the old Belle. Two hours later, drop bear Belle was still snoring loud enough to rattle the china, and he and Charming had made little progress.
“According to this text, we have until the stroke of noon today to save Belle,” David said, rubbing a hand over his face. “That’s not much time. Gold, can’t you, I don’t know, twirl your dagger and change her back?”
Rumple snorted. “Were it that simple, do you think I’d still be sitting here hitting the books with you?”
"Right," Charming said, returning to his reading.
“Dad?” Emma poked her head through the curtain, hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Door was open,” she told Rumple, then turned back to David. “You never showed up at the station. We…I spotted your truck out front and Gold’s empty Cadillac at Granny’s. It’s almost 7 a.m. and I was worried.”
“We were worried.” Snow appeared behind her daughter, black circles rimming her eyes. She noticed Belle, slumbering in the corner. “My gods, is that the drop bear?” she asked, backing away.
"Mom." Emma closed her eyes. "Didn't I tell you to wait in the Bug?"
Left with little choice but to reveal the details of the prank to Snow and Emma, Rumple was shocked when both women settled in to help with the rescue efforts. Emma volunteered to search Regina’s crypt and Snow poked through the rest of the shop, looking for useful magical artifacts. Now all four of them were in the shop workroom once more, sifting through the same piles of books in the hopes that they’d overlooked a solution.
“Nothing here,” David said, closing another volume. “Hey, what about True Love’s Kiss?”
“Between two cursed individuals, one of whom is currently an animal? I don’t think that’s in the annals of fairy tale lore,” Rumple said, pacing. Sunlight was streaming through the windows and the sun would reach its apex within the hour. “I doubt Henry wants to add this story to the pages of Once Upon A Time, he grumbled.
“So we bide our limited time until she wakes up and attacks us?” Emma surveyed the destruction of the workroom.
“No,” Rumple said with a growl, raking a hand through his hair.
“Yes,” Snow countered, jumping to her feet. “When I was hiding from Regina back in our land, Granny and Red taught me about blood bonds. If we allow Belle bite you and draw your blood, she should receive a small amount of your Dark One curse—not enough to transform her into a Dark One, but enough to subdue the drop bear transfiguration spell so True Love’s Kiss can work its magic.”
“This could save Belle’s life.” Rumple nodded, eyeing Snow with grudging respect. “Let’s make the preparations.”
Thirty minutes later, Rumple stood over Belle’s sleeping form, dagger in hand, while David aimed a large syringe filled with a brilliant purple rousing serum at her right hind leg. Snow and Emma braced their weight against Belle’s massive forearms, their fingers sinking into her thick, mottled fur. “Hold her tight,” David instructed. “Gold, after I inject the needle and she wakes up, you’ll have 60 seconds to transition Belle back into human form so you can kiss her.”
“Ready,” he said, holding the dagger aloft with shaking hands. All of their lives depended upon his speed and accuracy.
David plunged the needle deep into Belle’s furry thigh and her eyes snapped open, filling with rage when her gaze landed on Rumple. With a terrible scream, she lunged for his neck, screeching and straining against the combined physical restraint of physical force and savior magic. Offering his arm, Rumple allowed Belle to sink her three-inch canines deep into his wrist. He sucked in a breath, shock and pain making him dizzy. Focusing his bleary gaze, he transferred a mingled drop of his and Belle’s blood to the tip of the blade, and waved the dagger over her form.
A shimmering blue force field surrounded her, and the features of the drop bear melted away to reveal his Belle. Relief flooded him as he examined her with needy eyes, drinking in the curve of her hip, the swell of her breasts, her slender, tiny feet. After shielding her nakedness with a blanket, Rumple’s knees hit the floor and he bent low over her face, covering her lips with his. Blinding light spread over the room, brighter and more glorious than the sun, a white-hot arc of love bathing them in a heavenly glow.
True Love’s Kiss had succeeded—the drop bear reduced to no more than a legend.
Belle awoke disoriented, the hard floorboards at her back causing her to shiver despite the warm blanket she was cocooned inside.
“Hey,” said a soft voice from above. Rumple was smoothing his thumbs over her cheeks and Belle lifted her head off the floor, seeking more of the comforting touch. Behind him stood Emma and the Charmings, their faces wreathed in smiles. “Rumple, what?” She squinted at them in confusion.
“Let’s move you to the bed now,” Rumple said, gathering her against his chest.
“Rumple, I’m sorry for sneaking out and trying to do this on my own,” Belle said, sitting on the cot and sipping from the warm mug of chamomile tea Emma pressed into her icy hands. “All you said last night was true and I should have listened.”
“You were only trying to help, Belle,” he said, slinging an arm around her shoulders and drawing her tight against his side. “All I care about is that you’re all right. My precious, avenging angel.”
Shamefaced, Snow knelt beside the cot, covering Belle’s hand with her own. “If anyone needs to apologize, it’s me,” she said. “What happened—what you felt driven to do—it’s my fault. I was selfish and cruel to both of you.” She turned to Rumple. “Mr. Gold, I am sorry. If you cannot find it in your heart to forgive me, I’ll understand, but I truly hope you will.”
“I’m sorry, too,” Emma said, eyes welling up with tears. “All of us need to respect your time and privacy. We’ve gotten used to coming to you with every problem and need. That ends now.”
“Apologies accepted,” Rumple said, his voice gruff. Belle smothered a smile; Rumple hated these sorts of scenes.
“Yes, you’re forgiven,” Belle said, drawing a deep breath. Confession was hard, but it was also good for the soul. “I’m sorry for inventing the drop bear and going to such lengths to trick you. My actions were less than heroic. Rumple had nothing to do with any of this—I forced him to use his power and when you dared me to prove the drop bear was real, let’s just say I was carried away. I was wrong.”
“It was a convincing prank,” Snow said. “We deserved it for breaking into your house and the shop. But I vow I’ll never drop in again. Except perhaps to invite you to an engagement party. Or give you news that an abominable snowman has moved into the area?”
They all laughed together for the first time in, well, ever.
“We’re going to help you keep that promise about dropping in,” Belle said, glancing at Rumple. “Tempting as an engagement party or fighting off the latest threat to Storybrooke sounds, we’ve made other plans.”
“Have we?” Rumple asked, the brown eyes she loved so much sparkling with merriment.
“Yes,” she said, kissing his knuckles. “You know, I’ve always wanted to see the world. Have you ever been to Australia?”