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A Helping Hand From Beyond

Chapter Text

 

There is a man sitting in her seat. Gloria tilts her head on one side, sizing him up. Late forties, early fifties, a few years older than her Nicholas. Clean-shaven with longish hair: brown fading to grey at the tips and temples. He is sitting very still, unnervingly still, legs apart like all men with a degree of self-confidence about the size of their package, gold-handled cane resting between his knees, hands clasped in his lap.

She doesn’t begrudge him the seat. It is there to be sat on, after all. She has no special claim to it. But usually her very presence is enough to keep people away. Even the least psychically inclined can still sense someone watching them from the other side, and it is a sensation that unnerves most. It just so happens that this particular seat gives her the best view of Nicholas’s office window, the best vantage point from which to look out for him. She could sit right there in the room with him if she wanted, but she prefers not to get too close. She doesn’t like to crowd him, to, well, haunt him. He needs his space, just as he always did in life, and Gloria respects that. She just likes to keep an eye on him. Make sure he’s ok. Make sure he’s still eating and sleeping, even if he is subsisting on caffeine most of the time. She won’t deny that it was hard in those first few months after she passed and woke into this new… it can’t really be called a life, more a plane of existence. She spent so many long nights sitting here, watching the light in the window of his office as he worked and worked and worked to bury his grief, and she could only watch him, unable to console him as she so desperately wanted to do.

Gloria pushes the thought away; she doesn’t want to dwell on those first few painful months. They do say that the only death you can never recover from, never get over, is your own, but it has taken Nicholas such a long time.  

Presently the man looks up and looks Gloria straight in the eyes, startling her.

“Can I help you?” he asks.

Gloria looks around but there is no-one else to whom he could feasibly be speaking.

“Me?” she squeaks eventually.

The man nods.

“I do believe you’re the only one who can see me. And I do believe I’m the only one who can see you.”

There’s no doubt of it now, and Gloria wonders why she didn’t see it before. She’s had so little contact with others of her kind that she can’t recognise one right in front of her. But she sees the telltale hallmarks now. He seems fainter than the other shapes that move around them in the early morning light as the campus slowly comes to life. He makes no impression on the world, because he’s only half here, half moved on. He’s dead like her, watching over his unfinished business until his loved ones move on, and allow him to move on, too.

“You’re in my seat,” Gloria says, not the best conversation starter but the first sentence that pops into her head in the circumstances. She expects some kind of dry retort, but instead the man simply slides over on the bench and indicates for her to sit beside him. Gloria curses her own obtuseness because she could have simply sat next to him on the bench before, but she takes the offered seat anyway.

“Thank you.”

They sit in silence for a while.

“I’ve not seen you here before,” Gloria says presently, by way of small talk, but there is deeper meaning behind it because there has to be a reason why he is suddenly here. Why they are both here in this same spot.

“I moved recently. From Maine. California is new territory for me.” There’s another pause. “Raymond Gold. Heart attack, three years ago.” He holds out a hand which Gloria shakes.

“Gloria Rush. Bone cancer, two and a half years ago.”

It’s a brutal introduction, but a standard one amongst their sort. They’re both dead before their time or else they wouldn’t be here, so there’s no sense in skirting the issue. Introductions made, they sit in silence for a while longer.

“Who are you looking out for?” Gloria asks eventually.

“My wife,” Gold replies. “She needed to get away from it all, from all the memories in Maine. So eventually she cut all the ties and moved here. She’s working in the college library, taking some classes on the side. You?”

“My husband’s a professor. Astrophysics.”

“My wife expressed an interest in astrophysics,” Gold muses. “She was an English major, library science post-grad. She said that if she was having a fresh start then she wanted to have a part of her life, however small, not taken up with books.”

Something’s going to happen. Gloria can feel it. Why else would they both be here, in this exact spot at this exact same time? And as she sees Nicholas wander down the street absorbed in his notebook, and a lovely young woman with rich chestnut curls and her nose in a book coming in the other direction, she knows exactly what’s about to happen and why they’re there to see it.

It’s about to begin, the event that they’ve both been waiting for, and all she and Gold have to do is wait and watch and, maybe, just maybe, lend a little helping hand to make sure that everything continues on its path as it should.

She turns to Gold.

“That’s her, isn’t it?” she asks at the same time as he says “that’s him, isn’t it?” and they both know where they stand, and they share a wide smile.

This is the opportunity that they have been waiting for – Gloria here in California and Gold up in Maine. It’s almost time to move on. Almost time for that journey to begin.

So Gloria and Gold watch on tenterhooks as Nicholas Rush and Belle Gold bump into each other outside the University of California math and physics department, neither looking where they’re going, and notebook pages flutter to the ground and takeaway cup lids fly off and tea and coffee is spilled down shirts and skirts. Gloria groans, burying her head in her hands, because this really isn’t a very auspicious start for her poor husband. Beside her, Gold just chuckles.

“Oh Belle,” he says fondly. “Never change, sweetheart.”

Apologies are exchanged and the first contact is made as the two scrabble for notebook pages. So far, so good.

“Part of me feels like we ought to be eating popcorn,” Gloria muses as Belle hands the fallen papers back to Rush and they get up off the pavement, taking in each other’s beverage-stained clothing.

“If I wasn’t so concerned with watching how this plays out, I would offer to go and get some,” Gold agrees. “I suppose there’s little hope that it’ll all work as well as it does in the cinema and we’ll go straight from meet-cute to declarations of undying love?”

Gloria snorts. “You’ve obviously never met Nicholas,” she mutters, and Gold smiles.

“Belle’s very impulsive, but not usually in that way,” he concedes, and Gloria turns her attention back to the two figures on the street in front of her outside the physics building.

“Dr Rush, isn’t it?” Belle begins. “I was in your lecture on black hole theory the other day. It was fascinating.”

Rush nods. “Thanks.”

Gloria scrubs the heel of her hand over her forehead. “Is that all you’re going to say, Nicholas? Really?”

“I, erm, I’m sorry about your coffee,” Belle continues, looking at the dark stain down his white shirt.

“It’s ok.” Rush takes in her own dirtied clothing and looks away hastily when he realises, unbidden, that her little floral skirt is actually quite short. “I’m sorry about yours.”

“Let me get you a fresh one,” Belle says.

“No, really, it’s ok. I should be going, I have a class.”

“Yes, yes, of course.” Belle opens her mouth as if she’s going to say something, but no words come out. “I’ll let you get on,” she finally finishes, and they stand there for a moment before each giving an awkward cough and hurrying away in opposite directions.

Gloria lets out a long sigh and leans back against the bench, closing her eyes.

“You know,” Gold remarks, “I think they’re going to need a bit of help.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Gloria mutters. She finally opens her eyes as Nicholas enters his office and sets his now empty coffee cup on the desk. She expects him to look at his many whiteboards or launch straight into his equations, but instead he looks down at his coffee-stained shirt.

For the first time in far too long a time, Nicholas smiles. Just a small smile quirking at the corner of his lips, but a genuine smile nonetheless, and Gloria has to give a smile of her own. Progress has been made, at least. Belle has left an impression, although the extent of it remains to be seen.

“We should be going,” Gold says beside her. She looks over at him sharply and he nods towards a couple of tired-eyed students who are looking at their supposedly empty bench. Gloria stands, Gold follows her, and by unspoken agreement they find themselves wandering in the direction of the library. She didn’t think it would be long before they went to check in on Belle, and it seems only fair. Both of them are players in this little tableau, and she can’t be expected to help Nicholas on his path if she knows nothing about the woman the universe appears to have chosen for him.

“Tell me about Belle,” she says presently as they meander along the paths through the university campus. Gloria’s walked these roads so many times, both before and after she died, and she can probably walk them blindfold, but Gold seems at ease despite being comparatively new to the place. “Sorry, that makes it sound like I’m checking she’s good enough. Well, I suppose I am a little, but it’s not like I can do anything about it.”

Gold laughs. “Oh, I don’t know. We’re here to help, but there’s nothing to say we can’t hinder.”

“I don’t think it really works like that,” Gloria says. “We’re benevolent souls at heart, all of us. That’s why we’re here, why we can’t move. We stay here to make sure they’re happy, so why would we do anything that could prevent that?”

Gold is silent for a while.

“You’re right.” There’s another long pause, but it’s not an uncomfortable one. There’s no real sense of awkwardness when you’re dead, Gloria thinks. Nothing is important any more. Everything just… is.

“Belle’s… changed,” Gold begins eventually. “She used to be so bright. She is bright, intelligent I mean. But she used to be so… vibrant. She brought the light. She always brought the light wherever she went. Even to an old sod like me. This morning… It was only for a moment but it’s the first time I’ve seen her shine in three years. She always sees the good in people, and she’s passionate about what she believes in. She’s clumsy, and infuriatingly impulsive, and those were all the things I fell in love with. What about Nicholas?”

Gloria thinks.

“Nicholas always brought the calm. The logic, the reason, the rationality. I was the artist, he was the mathematician. Yin and yang. Balance. But he’s passionate too. He just shows it in a different way. He’s not exuberant, never has been. But he’s… intense. A good kind of intense. I thought I’d lost him,” she admits. “After it happened. After he lost me, I thought he’d gone for good. Just a shell of a man. He worked with such fervour, but it…”

“It was the wrong kind of fervour. Working to forget, not for the passion of it.” Gold nods. “I’ve done the same myself.” He pauses. “Belle was my second wife. My first marriage ended… acrimoniously.”

They reach the library at this point, and keep a respectful distance, watching through the glass double doors as Belle sits at the issue desk, staring into space.

“How are we going to go about this, then?” Gold finally asks. “How do we help?”

Gloria shrugs. Now that this moment has arrived, she has no idea what to do, despite knowing that it would be coming for a long time.

“I think we start by doing what we’ve always done,” she suggests. “We observe.”

“Observe, and then act.”

Gloria nods. All they can do, for the moment, is see how things pan out. They might be putting too little faith in their partners, after all, they might come together on their own, but she’s not convinced. Gold knows Belle, and Gloria knows Nicholas, and they both know that they’ll need a helping hand.

That’s what she and Gold are there for, after all.

Chapter Text

Gold has always tried to keep his distance from Belle, working on the principle that if she could somehow sense his presence then it would keep her from moving on and finding happiness again. Tonight though, he needs to know what’s going on in her head so that he knows how he can help her. So when she leaves work in the evening and enters her little apartment off campus, he follows her home and slips quietly in behind her. He’s been very good about not coming in here, letting her have her space and her life as she wants it, trying not to taint this place he’s never been to in life. It was different when they were still in Maine and Belle was still living in their marital home. She was already surrounded by memories of him there, but here is a place she has created for herself, a unique melange of her life before, beside, and beyond him. The shadow of his death does not belong here.

There’s no denying that this is Belle’s apartment, crammed with books and the antique tea cups she collects. That was how they met, when she’d come into his shop in search of new pieces to add to her growing set of mismatched cups and saucers.

“Not a whole set?” he asks as she pays for a single cup from a set he cannot sell complete due to damage to some pieces. Belle laughs and shakes her head.

“Where would the fun in that be? A complete tea set is just a complete tea set. It’s beautiful, of course, but it’s boring. A tea set made of different things, now that’s more interesting. Every piece has its own story, and together they can make a novel.”

Gold just hovers in the doorway for a while, leaning on his cane. An advantage to death is the blessed absence of pain and fatigue. He doesn’t need the cane any more, but he’s so used to walking with it, to setting his weight in a certain way to compensate for his bad ankle, that he can’t part with it now. Besides, where would he put it? He’s quite happy to stand for as long as Belle needs to settle, instead of trying to find a place to sit and constantly having to dodge her. Here he can stay on the fringe, not venture too much into a place that is just hers, that he has had no influence on.

All the same, there are still reminders of her life with him here. They were married for six wonderful years, after all, and those years cannot be forgotten no matter how painful the end might have been. She’ll never be able to cut him out of her life completely, of course not, and despite having sold up all the property and everything that was tying her to Storybrooke, she still has links to it. Just no links that keep her cemented there and prevent her from moving on and spreading her wings. Bits and bobs from her old life, just the very best memories. On the shelf beside the door is a photo of them together at Neal and Emma’s wedding. They had only been married a year themselves, and Belle had felt very conscious of being asked to sit on top table in place of Neal’s mother. But Neal had insisted, and there they were.

Belle had always been more of a mother to Neal than Milah had, despite being only eight years older than him.

He wonders why he chose that picture to display in pride of place, what meaning she attaches to it. It was never displayed in their home in Storybrooke, just placed lovingly in an album full of snaps from the wedding.

Belle’s in the kitchen, cooking. That was one of the worst things about watching over her after he had gone. He had always done the cooking, and watching Belle struggle in those first few weeks had been heartbreaking, especially dealing with the desperate desire to just sweep in and have a plate of her favourite spaghetti gamberoni waiting for her when she got in from the library. It’s not that Belle can’t cook. She managed on her own for years before she met him. It’s that the kitchen had always been his domain, and she couldn’t bring herself to push his memory out of it and go back to her old culinary lifestyle after so long of letting him cook for her. The town had rallied round her, though. Granny had made sure she was fed until she could get back on her feet. Now she’s experimenting with flavours more, recreating some of the favourite dishes she discovered with him and improving them.

The phone rings just as she begins to eat, and she rolls her eyes in the way she always did and takes her stir fry over to the sofa, wedging the phone under her ear. Gold doesn’t want to listen in on a private conversation, but he can’t leave without opening the door. He makes no impression on the world, there will be no indent in a cushion he sits on, but he’s not incorporeal and can’t walk through walls. He’ll be in the apartment until Belle leaves it, another reason that he does not normally come inside.

“Hi Neal,” Belle says brightly. Gold’s glad that she kept up the connection with Neal. He had worried that his death would push them apart, but if anything, their grief has brought them closer together. “I’m doing ok,” she continues. “California’s not Maine, that’s for sure.” She gives a soft laugh, spreading her tea-stained skirt over her knees and spanning the brown blotch with her hand. “I bumped into my astrophysics professor today, literally. Made a right fool of myself. Don’t know why that stuck in my head.”

Gold gives a small quirk of a smile. He knows.

“Neal!” Belle says, scandalised, and Gold wishes he knew what his son said. “I’ve been in one lecture with the man and spilled coffee down his shirt.”

But she’s still thinking about him, evidently, and that’s a good sign. Gold smiles.

“Oh yes?” Belle sits up a little straighter, her brow furrowed, and then a wide grin breaks over her face and she waves her fork around with excitement. “Oh Neal, that’s brilliant! Congratulations! How is she?”

Gold quirks an eyebrow.

“Oh, that’s good to hear. Well, if I remember correctly then wheat toast and apple juice got her through it last time…”

Gold has to lean back against the door in shock, and he doesn’t take in the rest of Belle’s conversation. These words can only mean one thing; that Emma is pregnant again. He’s not entirely sure what to make of this news, where that leaves Belle in relation to everything that’s happening - or will hopefully soon be happening - here in California.

Still, Belle stays smiling for the rest of the evening. More than once, she touches the tea stain on her skirt and a ponderous expression comes over her face as she looks at it. It’s always her left hand that ghosts over the patch, and her rings catch the light, the diamonds in the engagement and eternity bands sparkling brilliantly. Belle’s not really one for jewellery, but she always wears her three rings without fail. Gold wonders what she’s thinking, whether she’s entertaining the possibility that Neal obliquely alluded to.

Once she goes to bed, he stretches out on the sofa, staring up at the ceiling and thinking as he gets ready to spend the night. He doesn’t sleep; he’s sleeping enough in his grave, he doesn’t need it in the afterlife.

Gloria said that they were benevolent souls, and would not sabotage their significant others’ chance at happiness. Gold is not so sure. He loves Belle with all his heart and it has been so painful to see her so miserable, and he is not so selfish as to prolong her misery because he can’t stand the thought of her being happy with someone who isn’t him. All the same, the morning’s chance encounter, and now this news from Neal, all serve as a painful reminder that all around him, life is going on, a life that he can never be a part of again but is doomed to watch over for as long as it takes for his unfinished business - the love he left behind - to finish. There is nothing else for him in this world; Belle is the only thing he exists for here, and the thought that she has to be the one to let him go is a bittersweet one. He wonders if Gloria feels the same way, knowing that her Nicholas has to do the same. In the short time he has known her she seems to be at peace with the idea and looking forward to helping the two of them out. It’s a brutal thought, but Gold wonders if it might be because she had more time to get used to the idea of death before it claimed her; she knew that it was coming and that life would go on without her. His death was sudden, unexpected, and no-one had seen it coming. Perhaps it’s because she could prepare for this a little better. Gold did not have that same time. One moment he was alive and next he wasn’t, trying to navigate this maze of afterlife on his own, and watching Belle navigate her grief, both of them sinking into the darkness of death and taking a long time to claw their way back out again.

Gold is glad to see Belle smiling, though. It’s been too long since he saw her smile without that tinge of melancholy in her eyes.

In the small hours of the morning, his reflections are disturbed by Belle’s bedroom door opening; she floats through the apartment to the kitchen and in her pale satin robe she looks almost like a ghost herself. For a long time she stares out of the window with a glass of water, and then she moves over to her desk, picking up the photo frame there. It’s a family snap, of himself and Neal and Emma and a six-hour-old Henry, and Belle smiles as she traces her thumb over his face.

“You’re going to be a grandfather again, Rum,” she says softly, and Gold’s heart clenches. She hasn’t talked to him like this for months. She doesn’t know he’s really there, that he can really hear what she’s telling him, but in those first months after he died, she’d told Archie that it had helped her to talk to him like this. She liked to think that somehow, somewhere, he could hear her. Oh, if only she knew just how close he was, and just how much his heart is breaking now to hear her speak to him completely unaware.

“Emma’s due in May. Neal and Emma are hoping for a girl, but Henry wants a brother. You know what kids are like at that age, they’re convinced that the opposite sex are strange aliens from another planet.” She laughs. “They’re still arguing over whether or not to find out at the next scan. They probably still won’t have decided by the time they actually get there.”

She continues to look at the photograph for a while, smiling fondly, and then she passes back into her bedroom. Gold sighs, scrubbing his hands over his face. It’s at times like this that he really, really feels the curse of his in-between state. He wants to go over to Boston, to check up on Neal and Emma, but if he keeps forming new attachments to the family that he left behind, then he will never be able to move on, always hanging around waiting for the next event and the next milestone, but never being able to truly live in those moments and experience them to the full. He cannot afford to become attached to his new grandchild in any way, because he will never be able to hold him or her, and never be able to bring this bond to a satisfying conclusion. No, he must stay with Belle. He’s always stayed with Belle before, because even though Neal was just as affected by grief, Neal has Emma and Henry to pull him through. Belle has plenty of friends, but no family, no-one as close to her as Emma is to Neal, as Gold had been to her.

Gold sighs, and settles himself back on the sofa to wait for morning, trying to process what to do with this new information, and the unsettling thought that Belle still talks to him.

 

Chapter Text

 

The day after their first meeting, Gloria does not see Gold until the middle of the afternoon. Nick is in back-to-back lectures until the evening, and there is no use in her sitting on her bench outside his office if he’s not going to be there, so she takes a walk around campus, wondering how much intervention on their part will be required before something happens. She has come to the conclusion that they will need to intervene, because otherwise they wouldn’t be here. This… whatever it is between Belle and Nicholas, it can’t just be left to grow organically because it won’t grow. Nicholas is stubborn, she’s always known that, and sometimes so caught up in his own world that he’s blind to the obvious. Most people who know Nick would think of ‘dreamer’ as the last word to describe him, but Gloria knows better. He can go away with the fairies like the best of them, but his dreams are mathematical as he seeks to unravel the mysteries of the universe, unlike the more common fantastical notions associated with daydreaming.

Gold is, unexpectedly, nowhere near the library. There’s a small green space with benches and a memorial fountain in the centre of the campus, and it’s here that she trips over him.

“Good afternoon.”

He comes to himself with a start from where he has been contemplating the bubbling water, and looks over to her, patting the bench beside him in unspoken invitation. Gloria sits, and does what she has done for so long - observes. His brow is furrowed and he’s back staring into the middle distance, a thoughtful expression, but not a pleasant train of thought.

“How are things today?” he asks eventually, turning to her and seeming to push the thing that’s distracting him aside.

“Much the same as yesterday,” Gloria says with a shrug. “I wouldn’t go so far to say that Nicholas is obtuse, he just has a different system of priorities to other people. He’ll get there in the end. He did with me, after all. Even if I did have to coax him along gently.” It does feel strange to be walking in her own footsteps again, thinking about how her and Nicholas’s relationship unfolded and applying the same principles to someone else, but back when she was dying and he was already slipping away from her, she remembers grabbing him through a morphine haze and squeezing his hand to the point of pain for both of them to make sure that she had his full attention, and telling him in no uncertain terms that he was damn well going to be happy and love again someday; she’d make sure of it. And here she is, making sure of it.

“How’s Belle?” she asks eventually.

Gold gives an unsure nod. “Contemplative.”

“You seem quite contemplative yourself.”

“Yes.” His voice his clipped and it’s obvious that he doesn’t want to share what’s on his mind, so Gloria just shrugs mentally and watches the breeze create ripples on undisturbed surface of the water in the pauses between the fountain bursts. They’re like the breeze, she thinks, invisible and unknown but creating those ripples in life nonetheless.

“She talked to me,” Gold says at length. “Belle talked to me. She hasn’t done that for a long time. And I don’t know what that means. Is that a good sign or a bad one? She didn’t talk to me when she made the decision to come to California. She talked that over with her living friends, but she didn’t talk to me about it. In the first few months she talked to me all the time, asked my permission every time she wanted to change something about the life that had been ours and is now just hers. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy when she stopped talking to me. I kept being tempted to try and reply. But now she’s talked to me again.”

“Any reason? Or just telling you about her day? If this is really the start of something then perhaps she feels she needs your permission to move on and find someone new, even if it’s only subconsciously, so she’s started talking again to build up to that admission.”

“Yeah…” Gold sighs and kicks a stone towards the fountain. It’s always strange to see the things that they can move and can’t move in this life. “She was telling me that my daughter-in-law is expecting my second grandchild.”

Well, that would certainly account for his current mood. It must be a strange feeling, knowing that your family is expanding but that you will never meet those new members. Gloria doesn’t say congratulations, although that’s a natural first instinct. It would be cruel.

“Where are your family based?” she asks instead. “Are they in Maine?”

“Boston.” He pauses. “What about you? I can tell you’re not from this side of the pond.”

Gloria shakes her head. “Nicholas and I just had each other. No brothers or sisters, no parents anymore… I think that’s why we came to America in the first place. A new start, just the two of us. We never wanted to have kids - after my first treatment that was off the menu anyway, so probably for the best. So no, it was always just us two. And now it’s just Nicholas.”

Gloria wonders if perhaps Nicholas would have coped better if he’d had someone to talk to, like Belle has her stepson. But then again, Nicholas has always been an oyster, and she had felt privileged that he would open his tight shell to her. All the same, no man is an island.

“I just don’t know what this will mean now. As much as it seems that destiny’s brought the two of them together, you can’t deny that Belle comes with a lot more baggage.”

“I think baggage comes in many shapes and forms,” Gloria replies. She doesn’t want to go into just how badly Nicholas has coped with her passing, not yet. It’s still too private a mourning for her to share with someone else, even someone in the same state as she is. “Nicholas has his own burdens.”

There are going to be obstacles to overcome, but Gloria and Gold are there to help them do the overcoming. She just wishes she could be forewarned of when these things are going to rear their heads, of when Nicholas will pull back, when the feelings he’s tried so long to bury will bubble up and threaten to ruin this little chance of happiness.

“Well, I suppose this is our chance to find out,” Gold says, and he nods towards the path. Belle is coming towards them, tea in one hand and books in the other, completely lost in her own world and paying them no mind as she passes them. “I’ve had a peek at her schedule. She’s going to astrophysics.”

They follow at a respectful distance, just able to keep her bright blue dress in their sights as they go back to the physics department. Gloria’s been inside enough times but has never been into the lecture halls since she died, preferring to remain on the outside of the building. They weave easily through the milling students until they reach their destination, and slip inside the auditorium, taking seats at the very back. It is a little strange, sitting here in broad daylight knowing that they can neither be seen or heard, passing comment on things that are going on only a few feet away from them. Gloria wonders what would happen if someone were to accidentally sit down on her in the seat that looks empty to the casual observer. So far it has never happened, as the strange aura of death tends to keep a wide berth, and since seguing into this semi-corporeal form, she has become strangely adept at moving out of the way of people when they are about to touch her. Sometimes she wonders if she’s even moving of her own accord or if there is something about her now that moves this here-but-not-here form on its own to avoid discovery. She pushes the existential thoughts to the back of her mind and focuses on the lecture. Gloria remembers the last time she snuck into one of Nicholas’s lectures, sitting here at the back and distracting him with a little smile every time he turned away from the whiteboard. It’s a fond memory of her life, and Gold does not question her smirk.

It could be any other astrophysics lecture, really. Gloria doesn’t understand a word of what’s being said. She wonders how many of the students beneath her are actually taking in the equations or if they’re losing themselves in Nicholas’s mellifluous brogue like she always did. It’s a very good job he never had to teach her, she’d have failed everything.

After the lecture draws to a close, Belle hovers for a while, the last one to leave the theatre. Nicholas gives her a nod of recognition as she finally passes the front desk, and a smile is exchanged. Gloria crosses her fingers, holds her breath… And then lets it out in a long sigh when neither of them actually say anything.

“I did say that I thought they were going to need help,” Gold observes.

“You can’t blame me for hoping.” Gloria takes an indulgent moment to appreciate Nicholas’s arse as he wipes down the board. “One of us has to be optimistic and even though I’ve only known you a day, I can tell it’s not going to be you.”

Gold gives a snort of laughter. “I’m a former lawyer and a landlord. It’s my job to find all the problems and pick them apart.”

“I think we’re going to work well together, you and I,” Gloria muses. Nicholas has since left the room, but they’re still sitting there as the next class begins entering in dribs and drabs and the next professor sets up.

“So, when do we make our move?” Gold asks. “And… how?”

“Not yet. Let’s give them another couple of days.”

“Nothing’s going to happen,” Gold says with grim confidence. “Best to strike while the iron’s hot, don’t you think?”

“I don’t know. Things are already changing. Nicholas is smiling again.”

Gold is quiet for a long time before he nods his assent. “Yes. It’s good to see Belle smile.”

“Let’s not rush it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since watching over Nicholas, it’s when to make a move.”

Gold looks at her, his face a mask of polite curiosity. “You’ve had to intervene before.”

“Yes. I did say that Nicholas has his own burdens.”

They sit in silence for a while, contemplating this foreboding statement.

“We should leave,” Gold points out. The theatre is filling up and soon the lecture will start and they’ll be trapped there for the next hour. “Unless we want to create some rumours of ghosts haunting the department and opening and shutting doors unseen.”

They slip out of the room just before the professor shuts the door, and they go their separate ways. Gloria continues down to Nicholas’s office. It’s been a long time since she was inside it, but it wouldn’t be the first occasion that she’s snuck in to take a look around. Disturbing the status quo and changing things could be disastrous for them, but if she’s going to intervene then she’ll have to start throwing her metaphorical weight around soon. Peeking in through the glass panel in the door, she looks around at the wonderful cacophony of clutter that forms Nicholas’s office. It’s really a miracle that their home has remained so tidy, but perhaps Nicholas got so used to all his mess being confined to one room whilst he was sharing the house with her that it just hasn’t occurred to him that he now has all the space he wants to spread out his equations and papers.

The parts of the desk that are not covered in paperwork, either his own research or his students’ essays, are littered with paper cups and unwashed coffee mugs, stacked precariously and threatening to smash on the floor any moment.

The sight of them gives Gloria an idea, and she begins to plan her first intervention in Belle and Nicholas’s courtship-to-be.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Well, this is certainly a new experience for me.”

“You’ve never been on a stakeout before?”

Gold looks at Gloria with a raised eyebrow. “No. Do you make a habit of it?”

“Not a habit, but it’s not the first time I’ve done it.”

They’re sitting in a darkened corridor of the physics building outside Nicholas’s office, waiting for the man himself to leave. It’s almost midnight and the rest of the place is deserted; the cleaning staff are long gone.

“Does your husband ever sleep?” Gold asks incredulously, going over to peer through the glass panel in his office door for the third time.

“Oh, sometimes.” Gloria’s voice is airy, as if this is an entirely normal occurrence. Well, for her it probably is. “But he likes to work through his feelings. I’d take this as a good sign, if I were you.”

It’s been a week since their first meeting, and by proxy Nicholas and Belle’s first meeting. Nothing more has happened, apart from a couple more lectures in which there has been no interaction between the two aside from that of professor and student, and Gloria has decided that it is time to make their move. Hence their position hiding out in the physics department until everyone has gone home. Although, given their current spanner in the works, they may have to wait a lot longer than they were expecting. Gloria hasn’t told Gold the full extent of her plan yet, but she mentioned something about coffee machines and Gold’s quite happy to go along with it since he hasn’t had any better ideas. After that first meeting, things seem to have stagnated so anything to give proceedings a little push in the right direction will be useful.

“He’s working himself into the ground to try and avoid Belle?” Gold hedges. Gloria nods.

“Well, not avoid Belle, per se. More… avoid thinking about her. Avoid thinking about anything, really. It’s always been his way.”

“Hmm.” Gold glances into the room again. “Do you think we ought to do something to get him out of there?”

Gloria gives him an amused smile. “What do you suggest?”

“Well, we’re dead. I suggest haunting him. You know, just open the door, go in, throw some books around.”

Gloria snorts. “Have you ever done that?”

“No,” Gold admits, “but it was very tempting after a while. I mean, when I first…” For some reason he can’t bring himself to say the words. “At first I was too concerned with keeping an eye on Belle, but when she started to get better I started testing the limits, so to speak. I had my fair share of enemies and there were always people who gave Belle the side-eye for having married me. Small town, small minds and all that. I would dearly have loved to have got back at the Mother Superior. Oh, I can see the headlines now. Convent haunted by ghost of malevolent rent collector.”

“You owned a convent?”

Gold shrugs. “It’s a building like any other.”

Gloria gives a shrug of concession and leans back against the wall. She’s sitting comfortably on the floor whilst Gold paces up and down, his footsteps and cane making no sound on the hard linoleum. Suddenly something catches his eye in Nicholas’s office and he rushes over to see.  

“Oh, hang on, I think we have movement.” The professor is standing up and stretching the cricks out of his spine, packing papers away, and Gold neatly sidesteps as the door opens.

“Are we going in?” he asks Gloria.

“No, we’re just here to make sure he goes. Our mission lies in this direction.”

They watch Nicholas lock up and leave the building, and then Gloria guides them through the dim corridors towards the janitor’s closet.

“Why…” Gold throws his hands up in defeat as Gloria fiddles at the lock with a bobby pin. “You know what, I’m just not going to question it.”

“Are you any good with locks?” Gloria asks, holding up the bobby pin without looking up. “We could be here all night.”

Gold smirks, gives her back the bobby pin and takes his picks out of his coat pocket.

“Are you sure you were a landlord and not a master criminal?” Gloria asks shrewdly as he works, deftly unlocking the cupboard door within a few seconds.

“It always pays for someone in my line of work to be able to pick locks,” he replies, swinging the door wide.

“You have no idea how incredibly creepy that made you sound,” Gloria points out.

“When you’ve had your tenants lose their keys, their spare keys, and your master key, you need some way of getting them inside.” He pockets the picks again and gestures to the open closet with a flourish. “I did antique restoration on the side, and you’d be surprised how many old things are locked and the key lost to time.”

“Did you ever find anything interesting?” Gloria asks as she rummages through the shelves, finally coming up triumphant with a screwdriver and a flashlight. Gold decides that it would be wise not to make any comment and just follows her down the corridor.

“Not usually. The odd bit of jewellery. Several grams of fifty year old cocaine.”

“What?!”

“I would never have guessed that the sweet old lady from the manor house on the hill was a coke fiend,” Gold says lightly. That was definitely one of the more interesting items that he’s come into possession of over the years, and he still laments the fact that it had to be handed over to the police. Not the cocaine, the box that it had been locked in. It was really an exquisite piece.

They have since reached Gloria’s destination, and she hands him the flashlight. They’re in the main breakout area of the building, and they are standing next to the coffee machine.

Gold dutifully helps Gloria pull the machine away from the wall and points the flashlight at the back of it. “I’ve refrained from asking so far, but what are you doing?”

Gloria grins at him from the other side of the coffee machine. “Sabotage!”

“I knew I shouldn’t have asked.”

Gloria happily unscrews one of the panels on the back of the coffee machine and pokes about inside. Gold wonders what someone outside could see if they were to look in. Would they really see a flashlight and a screwdriver floating around in mid-air, or would the people holding them become visible? Or would they not see anything at all? For all the time he’s been in this state, Gold has never actually thought too far into the mechanics of it. Possibly because he’s never interfered in life quite like this.

“Nicholas loves his coffee,” Gloria continues, carefully pulling a wire out of the back of the machine.

“You know, that was one thing that I had noticed.”

Gloria looks up at the dry humour in his tone and grins. “Not a coffee drinker yourself then?”

“Tea all the way. You?”

“I prefer coffee to tea, but I’m not as bad as Nicholas. I think he’d get it intravenously if he could. I tried getting him to switch to decaf once, that didn’t go down well. He thought I’d poisoned him.”

“You’re no stranger to subterfuge then,” Gold remarks as she pulls out another wire.

“Nope. Sometimes that’s the best way to get his attention.”

She begins to screw the panel in place again and Gold leans on the wall with the flashlight.

“So, call me slow if you will, but what exactly is breaking the coffee machine going to accomplish?”

“Nicholas really likes the coffee from this machine. I mean, when you drink as much as he does, you can be called a connoisseur. Not that he won’t drink any kind of sludge as long as it’s got caffeine in it when he’s desperate, which is roughly fifty per cent of the time. Through careful observation I know that if this coffee machine is for any reason out of action, then the nearest one of its type is in…”

Gloria pauses.

“Yes?” Gold presses gently.

“I was waiting for a drum roll.”

“Oh.” Gold drums his fingers against the wall. “Sufficient?”

“Thank you. The nearest coffee machine of this type is in the library.”

Gold nods, impressed. “You think of everything.”

“No, I just know Nicholas.”

A noise in an adjoining corridor has Rum switching off the flashlight and plunging them into darkness. They’ve never yet been in a position whereby someone might see them, or rather see what they’re doing if not themselves, and call attention to the strange goings on, and they have no desire to find out what would happen if they do find themselves in that position. Footsteps come closer, and Gold draws in a sharp breath that he really doesn’t need to take any more. It’s funny how the instincts refuse to die even in the afterlife.

A security guard gives a cursory flick of his flashlight around the breakout area, finds nothing amiss, and moves away again. There’s no more leisurely conversation as they finish their task and carefully move the coffee machine back into position, and then it’s a game of cat and mouse as they return to the janitor’s cupboard trying to avoid the security guard. Thankfully, they don’t see him again, but Rum’s nerves are thrumming with tension as he works the lock to cover up any evidence of their break in, with Gloria keeping watch.

“Time to make a break for it,” she observes as they make their way towards the doors and see the guard coming in the opposite direction.

Gold nods his agreement. “As lovely as your husband’s workplace is, I’d rather not be stuck here all night.”

Gloria just raises an eyebrow at his describing the physics department as ‘lovely’.

They slip out of the building after the guard and wander through the darkened campus to the fountain, still bubbling away. It feels strange, Gold thinks, knowing that they have begun to intervene. A part of him is excited and wondering how long it will take to change the status quo, but at the same time, the part of him that clings so desperately to Belle is hoping that this will be a lengthy process so that he can stay with her for longer.

In a way, he’s scared of what comes next, of what he might find in that great hereafter once he’s ready to pass on. He thinks that there must be something there, otherwise he wouldn’t be here. Why would they spend this agonising time waiting to pass over into peace, only for there to be nothing on other side of that veil?

“Penny for them?” Gloria asks softly, looking at him with a curious expression, as if she’s trying to read him.

“Do you ever wonder about what comes next?”

Gloria shakes her head. “I try to avoid that as much as possible.”

“Idle speculation sets you up for disappointment,” Gold agrees.

“No, I just have faith that wherever it is, it’s going to be the right place. It’s not something I can ever hope to properly imagine.”

Gold is not a believer himself, but his aunts had been, and he respects Gloria’s ability to place her trust in something so much bigger than her. He’s always liked to be in control of his life far too much to place any kind of belief in a higher power, but he expects that it must be a comfort to think that there’s someone up there watching out for her. Gold gives a wan smile and stares unseeing at the fountain, and tries not to think about what comes next. Maybe by the time this stage of his afterlife is over, he’ll be proved wrong and forced to eat his words, but if there’s one thing that he remembers from his aunts, it was that God is forgiving and hopefully won’t hold his lack of faith during life against him. He shakes the thought away. His focus for now is making sure that Belle, who is still here and who hopefully has many, many blissful years ahead of her before she has to think about her own passing, is happy.

“People say that you shouldn’t fear something you have no control over,” Gloria says presently.

“I suppose that makes sense,” Gold says.

“It’s bullshit.”

Gold turns to his companion, it’s the first time he’s ever heard her so vehement.

“I was terrified of dying,” she continues. “Even though I knew everything would be all right in the end, for me at least, and I knew that I’d finally be free from all the pain, which I was definitely looking forward to, and even though I put a brave face on it for Nicholas, I was still scared, knowing that it was coming but never knowing quite when.”

Gold isn’t sure how to respond to that.

“I suppose what I’m trying to say is that it’s fine to feel fear even if something’s inevitable. You’ve got no control over what happens next, and it’s fine to find that terrifying.”

It’s not exactly reassuring, but it’s nice to know that he’s not the only one who’s been scared of the unknown.

Nothing more is said as they continue to watch the sun rise over the campus.

Chapter Text

 

It isn’t really shaping up to be one of Rush’s best days. He’s got a crick in his neck from sleeping oddly, because apparently after two and a half years his body still can’t get used to the fact that he’s alone in bed and that he no longer needs to give Gloria all the space she needs to toss and turn and try and find a position that doesn’t cause her spine too much pain. He’s had very little sleep altogether from working too late into the night last night. And to top it all off, the coffee machine in the physics department is broken. The two maintenance guys are standing around it scratching their heads in astonishment at how it came to be so thoroughly broken, but it’s clear that nothing is going to get done any time soon. Now, had he had the second cup of coffee of the day (he always has the first before leaving the house, or else he’d never leave the house), then the first two points that are making his day a bad one would have been somewhat negated. As it is, Rush is in a foul mood as he makes his way through the campus to the library and the next decent coffee machine. He likes to think he’s not having such a bad day that he’ll resort to anything vaguely caffeinated in his attempt to stay awake and alive.

He doesn’t stop to question why the library of all places has the best coffee on campus - well, second best after his own department. He remembers his own college years well enough, and as he enters, the sight of students in their little study cubicles with blankets and pillows making their spaces into little havens of warmth and comfort as well as learning, tells him that the library has been occupied all night and the coffee machine has had plenty of use. He only hopes it still has beans in it after the assault it took last night.

For the first time this morning, luck is on his side, as he finds one of the librarians standing on a stepladder to refill the machine. He watches from a distance as she stretches on ridiculously high heels, expecting any moment for her to fall and break her neck, but her task is negotiated successfully and once she’s back on solid ground, Rush’s sleep-deprived brain recognises her as Belle Gold, one of his mature astrophysics students, and the very same person he ended up spilling tea all over a week ago.

“Good morning, Dr Rush,” she says brightly as she locks the bag of coffee beans away in the cupboard beside the machine. She’s far too perky for someone up and working so early in the morning – it’s not yet eight o’clock and classes don’t start for another hour – but somehow the quality in her is endearing rather than irritating.

“Hello, Ms Gold.” He gets a cup of coffee from the machine and when he turns back, Belle is still watching him with a smile over the top of her own mug. There’s a moment of silence that’s just half a second too long before she seeks to fill it again.

“What brings you to our side of the campus then?” Belle asks. Rush taps his paper cup.

“Our coffee machine’s broken.”

“I feel very honoured that you’d come all this way for our coffee,” she teases. Rush raises an eyebrow.

“I’m just very particular about coffee.” Well, he is sometimes.

“Hmmm.” Belle doesn’t seem entirely convinced. “Maybe you should try switching to tea.”

Rush almost spits out his mouthful of coffee at the suggestion and Belle giggles, a musical sound in the quiet of the library.

“I’m serious,” she said. “No need to rely on a machine for tea.”

Technically there’s no need to rely on a machine for coffee either, but Rush declines to point that out. There’s something about Belle’s brightness and openness that pushes aside his need to combat all attempts at social interaction with sarcasm.

“I’ve been doing the reading,” Belle says presently, changing the subject. “About the possibility of warp speed travel. It’s really interesting; there are so many things that I hadn’t considered about it, and about travelling faster than light. I particularly like the notion that if you’re travelling faster than light you can never see where you’re going because you get there before the light does. It does throw a new dimension on all these science fiction shows. I think the biggest problem if you were travelling at that speed would be course correction for something that was in your way and stationary. Would you bash into it or warp around it?”

Rush smiles at this earnest speech. He’s not usually one for such interactions with his students, usually because his students can’t be bothered to do the reading and very rarely have an original thought in their head that could lead to such a conversation. Perhaps increasing years have made him cynical, but Belle’s enthusiasm for his subject is refreshing.

“I think that’s something you’d have to experiment with,” he replies. It’s not something he’s ever thought about himself, but now that the seed has been planted in his mind, he can’t help but wonder.

“I’ve always thought that would be interesting,” Belle muses. “To look at the things in sci-fi films and TV shows and use physics and quantum mechanics to prove whether or not they would actually be possible.”

They spend another few minutes talking about warp drives, Star Trek, and the Miracle Exception, and Rush realises that his coffee has begun to go cold with him only having drunk a few mouthfuls of it. He gets himself a fresh cup and Belle grins.

“Sorry, I shouldn’t keep you any longer. You’ll have things to do, and so do I.” She looks over at the large stack of books waiting to be reshelved and the other librarian at the issue desk who keeps giving them a disapproving look over the top of her computer monitor. “But I’ll see you in class later, right? I’m looking forward to it.”

“So am I.” And Rush finds that for once, he is. He has always known himself first and foremost as an academic and as a teacher second, and although he does enjoy sharing the mysteries of the universe with his students, there are times when he’d really rather just hole up in his office and forget about the lot of them. This is not one of those times. He likes to see Belle in his lectures, her smile and her sticking out from the rest of his students. Maybe it’s her age, the fact that she’s got a good fifteen years on the rest of the class and is studying his subject because she really, really wants to, rather than because she needs a science elective in order to pass the semester. He wonders why she’s doing what she is, studying without any real objective in mind, just for the love of learning new things, and he wonders how she’s funding herself. He doesn’t think he’s ever wondered so much about any other student.

“Well, I’ll see you later, Dr Rush.”

Nicholas does something that he doesn’t think he’s ever done with any student before.

“Call me Nicholas.”

A small smile creeps over Belle’s face.

“In that case, you can call me Belle.”

Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t want to think of her as a student. He doesn’t think of her as a student. Since that morning when she bumped into him and spilt her tea, he’s thought of her as something a little bit… separate. Different. He holds her in a different regard to the others in the class. Maybe it’s because he really doesn’t want to face up to the fact that he has a crush on one of his students and it makes him feel like a pervert even though she’s far closer to his own age than anyone else his brain could have chosen to be attracted to.

“I’ll see you later, Belle.”

They go their separate ways and Rush meanders back to the physics building. The coffee machine is still not fixed, and the two technicians have now pulled it away from the wall and taken the back panel off, gazing in bemusement at the utter mess of wires inside and wondering who on earth could have so thoroughly rewired a coffee machine overnight. One of them blames divine intervention, although Rush is too much of a cynic to think that this is some sign from above telling him to quit drinking coffee. His mind wanders back to Belle as he unlocks his office, and he finally, finally admits what he’s been trying not to admit for a week. To use a quaint and slightly old-fashioned term, he fancies Belle Gold.

He hasn’t fancied anyone since he first laid eyes on Gloria over twenty years ago. He’d thought then that it was a done deal, that he’d found The One and there would be no-one else. But now, there’s Belle, and something in his brain and his heart is reminding him that even though Gloria has gone, he is still here.

Does he want it to go any further? Well, of course he does, but he’s wary. He’s never been one to make the first move. Gloria had been the one to initiate their relationship, although he’s quite proud of himself for proposing without any of her subtle hints (at least, he thinks he did; the hints might have been so subtle he only picked up and acted on them subconsciously). And after everything that’s happened in the last few years, he’s really not sure he trusts himself to do this again. When he thinks about the person he was before Gloria got sick and the person he is now…

He pushes the thoughts to the back of his mind and closes his eyes, trying to focus on work.

You’ve got to keep living, someone told him, a few weeks after Gloria passed away and he really wasn’t doing so well. Rush knows that, theoretically. All the same, he still can’t quite bring himself to move on from the guilt that has driven him for these past three years.

X

Belle smiles to herself as she goes about her day, humming a little tune as she reshelves and indexes and reads up on warp theory when she can. Her colleagues in the library office have been giving her funny looks ever since her conversation with Nicholas this morning, and a small part of her wonders whether they’re right and she needs to stop this… It can hardly be called a flirtation; they’ve only ever talked about science and in an earnest way, with no strange innuendo or double entendres. After all, he’s her professor and she’s a student, which is a relationship that is traditionally frowned upon. But then, she’s a mature student, she’s forty years old, she’s a grandmother, for crying out loud (admittedly only through marriage, but she’s always been Henry’s Nana Belle from the moment he was born).

Belle sighs, this is turning into one of those ‘I’m not like other girls’ scenarios, so she’s probably best off dropping it. At the end of the day, she’s still a student and he’s still a teacher, and he probably just lumps her in with the rest of the students he teaches giving no thought to her relative maturity in comparison. She’s just another student, she can’t start thinking she’s someone special made of moonshine just because she’s older.

There were twenty years between her and Rum, after all. Age is just a number.  

Which is a shame, because ever since Neal had joked about her and Nicholas bumping into each other being the start of something, she can’t help but think that perhaps it’s the start of something too. He’s an attractive man, certainly, but there’s something else about him, in his quiet intensity and the obvious passion that he has for his subject and his students, although he’d probably try and deny the latter if confronted with the suggestion. He wants them all to do well and do their best for their own sake, not just his. He’s the first person she’s met in California that’s made something in the back of her mind begin to wonder if she’s ready to make that step and begin dating again.

Why did fate have to make him her professor and probably inaccessible?

 

Chapter Text

 

Gloria does not often spend time in Nicholas’s office when he is also in it. She watches him from outside, observing in as detached a manner as possible, or she sneaks in when he’s not there. Today though, she needs to be a little bit closer, because they’re so close to a breakthrough and she doesn’t want anything to jeopardise it. The trick with the coffee machine had been so successful and Belle and Nicholas had actually managed to have a conversation that lasted several minutes and left both of them smiling and on first name terms at the end of it, but Gloria knows Nicholas’s ability to overthink things and she’s determined that this is not going to be one of the things that he overthinks. She knew that it was too much to hope for that one of them would ask the other out there and then, but the more time that passes without that first step being made, the more time Nicholas has to get cold feet.

So this time, when he returns to his office, she comes in with him, perching on the windowsill, which is about the only surface not covered in paperwork or books. Nicholas is not the kind to talk to himself, or to her, which makes gauging his emotions somewhat difficult. It’s why she’s had to become so good at watching and picking up on the tiniest things that will tell her how he’s thinking. For a long time after coming into the office, Nicholas just sits at his desk with a little smile on his face and Gloria can’t help but smile too, because this is obviously a good sign. When he lets out a long sigh, scrubs his hands over his face and replaces his glasses on his nose with an air of grim determination before turning to his whiteboard, Gloria groans loudly, knowing he can’t hear her, and seriously considers bashing her head against the wall.

“Nicholas,” she grumbles, “you’ve got to stop fighting this.”

They are words she’s said to him before, both in life and in death. Gloria would never presume to force someone to move on or stop grieving if they weren’t ready to do so, but this is not the first time that Nicholas has stopped himself from moving on even though she can tell that he wants to and is ready, or at least nearly ready, to do so. She hasn’t told Gold what she did before, when she had to intervene the first time, but she thinks about it now. It was in this very room, and it had taken so much careful planning since she didn’t have a handy lockpicker to hold the flashlight for her at the time.

Nicholas had started working longer and longer hours even before she’d died. His way of distancing himself from what was happening, she supposed. His way of fighting it and trying to pretend that it didn’t exist, despite her telling him on several occasions that this was not something he could fight against. It was inevitable. And then the inevitable had happened, and Nicholas had not changed. He’d just continued to bury himself in his work here in his office. His colleagues had thought it strange that he was here the day after the funeral - the dean had signed him off until then and practically forbidden him from setting foot on campus - but they made no mention of it. Everyone grieved in different ways, after all, and some people just liked to try and move on with life as much as possible. But Nicholas wasn’t moving on, not at all. He was still signed off from teaching and spent all his time in his office.

When Gloria - still new to this afterlife and guiding herself through it as best she could - realised that he had not been home and had not slept properly in four days, she panicked and began to influence him in the only way she could - by exerting what little influence she could on his surroundings.

Because he only left his office to get more coffee or use the bathroom, it took her a whole day to set things up and then another one to put them in motion.

At three o’clock in the afternoon, about a week after people started to think that there was really something very wrong with Dr Rush but were completely unsure what to do about it because grief is such a personal and taboo subject in this culture, someone set off the fire alarm in the physics building which resulted in a full evacuation and the entire faculty standing around in the car park for an hour. It was the first time Gloria had interacted with the living world in full view of the living and she felt a very small frisson of pride that she cherished for a long time afterwards because it was the only positive emotion she could muster.

When Nicholas Rush, in an absolutely sour mood, was finally allowed back into the building, he found himself unable to get into his office. The door had mysteriously locked itself, thanks to Gloria’s repeated efforts with a screwdriver.

It was then that one of his colleagues finally took the plunge and told him in no uncertain terms to go home, take a bath, and sleep.

And finally, Nicholas had caved and everything had caught up with him. He stopped fighting, just for a while, and as wretched as it made Gloria to watch over him in his utter misery for the next few days as he confronted everything he had been fighting against, she knew in her heart that she had done the right thing, that the cycle needed to be broken.

Sitting in the windowsill now, she wonders if she’s going to have to resort to such drastic measures again, or if he’ll come round on his own.

He feels guilty, that much she knows. He feels terrible that he spent more time working than he did with her when she was dying, because he couldn’t cope with the knowledge that she’d soon be gone.

And now he feels that unless he keeps working, he’s somehow betraying her memory and that her death means nothing. He prioritised work over life when she was alive, and so he has to continue doing it now she’s dead.

Is he really intending to live this way for the rest of his life? He’s punishing himself and Gloria can’t bear to watch it. She looks out of the window at the bench she usually frequents, now occupied by a pair of young lovers. If there’s one thing she wishes she could do, it’s tell Nicholas that she forgives him, that there was nothing to forgive in the first place, and that he’s got to stop doing this to himself and move on. She’d told him she wanted him to be happy and love again, and him refusing to do that is more of a betrayal than anything else he could do.

“Please, Nicholas,” she breathes. “Please just take this opportunity and stop fighting it. Please.”

He doesn’t look up, obviously, and Gloria sighs, resting her head against the window. It’s at that moment that Gold walks past, and he stops when he sees her in her perch, quirking an eyebrow.

“Comfortable?” he asks.

Gloria gives a slow nod. “I’m hoping that if I stare at him long enough I can control his mind.” She points over her shoulder to Nicholas and Gold peers into the room past her.

“Right. How’s that going for you?”

“Not great. Terrible, actually.” She sighs. “He’s just so bloody stubborn!”

“I thought it was going well this morning.” Gold’s voice is tentative. “Has there been some kind of catastrophe I didn’t know about? Belle seems pretty happy, although if I could lock her judgmental colleagues in a broom cupboard I think she’d probably be happier.”

“No, not a catastrophe, other than the breathing one that occupies this room.” Gloria snorts. “He’s started thinking.”

“I take it that’s a bad thing.”

“It’s a very bad thing. Nicholas thinks to the exclusion of all else sometimes.” Again she remembers the fire alarm and hopes she won’t have to resort to such drastic measures.

Gold chuckles. “And here was I thinking that you were the pathological optimist.”

“It can sometimes be hard to be an optimist when you spend most of your time watching over a pessimist with… issues.”

It feels a bit strange to be having this conversation through a pane of glass whilst Nicholas is there in the room just a few feet away from her and completely oblivious, but that is one advantage to their state.

“Well…” Gold leans against the window next to her. “Maybe we just don’t give him time to think.”

Gloria nods. “Good plan.”

“I know we were going to take this slowly and surreptitiously and try to let them work it out on their own as much as possible, but if we give them too much time to think between meetings then they’re going to keep taking a few steps back every time we push them a few steps forward. So we maybe need to throw them together a bit more for a while, and then give them time to recover.”

“So what do you suggest?” Gloria likes this plan. Maybe by the time Nicholas has time to overthink things again, enough will have changed in his mindset that he won’t take them back to square one entirely.

“Well, we know that there’s a lecture this afternoon. One that they’re both looking forward to even if they’re currently trying to deny the fact.” Gold peers into the room again. “What is he doing?”

“Attempting to unravel the secrets of life, the universe and everything… and teleportation, it looks like.”

“Good grief, you’d better stop him working out how to teleport or we’ll never be able to secure them in the same room together.”

In spite of her low mood, Gloria has to laugh.

“I’ll change his equations when he’s out of the room. That should throw him off the scent for a while.”

Gloria wonders. It’s never crossed her mind to try and communicate with Nicholas directly, leaving him a note or something. On the face of it, it would be the easiest way to get through to him. Wait for him to leave, wash off his whiteboard and write ‘FOR GOD’S SAKE ASK HER OUT AND BE HAPPY!’ on it instead. She’s not sure whether that would count as leaving too much of an impression on the world though, and whether it would be allowed. She’s not usually one for pushing the boundaries too much but she keeps it in mind for if things go drastically wrong. However, ghostly messages appearing offering relationship advice would probably not be the most useful thing she could do and although Nicholas is a down to earth and not at all spiritual man, she would fear for his reaction to phantom writing.

“I think we ought to take in another physics lecture this afternoon,” Gold says presently. “Maybe inspiration will strike and we can keep the pressure on.” He gives a soft huff of laughter. “In a way it sounds like some kind of military operation.”

“I suppose for us it is. Well, military might be a bit strong. But… This is pretty much all we have, so we’re far more invested in it than they are, because this is just one very small part of their lives. They’ve got a lot of other things to think about and do. Even if the thinking part can cause inordinate problems.” She glares at Nicholas, why is he making life so difficult for himself? “Since they’re the only thing we have to think about, naturally this is the only thing we have to do. So… we’re doing it.”

Gold nods. “And we will keep doing it until it all comes right in the end.”

The say their goodbyes with the intention of meeting up again outside the lecture theatre later, and Gloria wonders what they can do to keep the ball rolling now that it has begun, and more importantly, what she can do to get Nicholas to stop fighting his desire to move on and find love again.

Chapter Text

 

Sitting in their usual spot at the back of the lecture theatre, Gold and Gloria watch the numbers scrawling over the board as Nicholas explains warp theory, the squeaking of his dry-wipe marker punctuating his words. It’s quite clear to even the most uninitiated in the room - Gold - that the man is in his element and is probably never happier than when he’s unravelling the mysteries of the universe. He turns back to face the class and scans the faces, and he gives the smallest quirk of a smile when he meets Belle’s eyes in the front row.

“Now, what would you think would be the practical problems of travelling faster than the speed of light?” he asks the class. “Ignore the numbers for a moment and think about the practical application of the physics.”

No-one in the class says anything, and Nicholas’s eyes drift back to Belle.

“Ms Gold, I believe you have some thoughts on this topic.”

Gold can’t see Belle’s face, but he can see the way her head ducks in mingled embarrassment and pride at being singled out like this.

“Is he doing this on purpose because of their conversation this morning?” he asks Gloria.

She nods. “Probably. He’s always liked it when students think for themselves and come up with ideas like this. He might be grumpy at times but he appreciates intelligence and he does enjoy seeing his students actually learn things. He doesn’t like it when they don’t show willing to learn.”

“I can appreciate that.” Gold pauses. “Belle can appreciate that too. She’s spent so much of her life trying to encourage people to read and whilst she’s one of the most patient people on the planet, the only times I’ve known her get truly frustrated were when she was trying to raise funds and educate people about the importance of reading.”

Below them, Belle is speaking.

“Course correction,” she says. “If you’re travelling faster than the speed of light then you arrive at your destination before the light does, therefore you can’t see where you’re going. And if you can’t see anything in front of you then you can’t see any obstacles and can’t course correct. You couldn’t use sonar or ultrasound to detect anything in your path either, because sound travels more slowly than light, and therefore the sonar you fired forwards would go backwards as you travelled.”

“That’s definitely something that the sci-fi films don’t take into account. So here’s where we come to the idea of warp…”

Gloria leans back in the uncomfortable seat, crossing her arms with a little smile.

“I think there’s something there that wasn’t there before,” she says, as Nicholas continues to explain the theoretical possibility of travelling at the speed of light without crashing into invisible asteroids. “Now all we have to do is keep it here.”

Gold nods. “Any idea how?”

“We’ll need to keep them together somehow, give them the chance for another conversation after the lecture’s finished. I know Belle stayed of her own accord last time, but we can’t guarantee that.”

“What do you suggest?” Gold asks. “Apart from locking them in a supply closet together. Don’t get me wrong, I’m up for that, but neither of us thought to bring a screwdriver.”

Gloria sighs. “I don’t know. We need to get everyone else out and make sure they stay. Nicholas is always the last to leave, so that’s not a problem, but Belle’s the wild card. You know her better, what would keep her here and force her into conversation?”

“I wish I knew.” Gold shakes his head in despair, wondering already if perhaps their mission is a little bit doomed. “This is new territory for me. I mean, you’ve been watching Nicholas interacting in this environment for years and you know how he works in it and you know how he’ll react. I know Belle as a librarian; I don’t know her as a student.”

“It’s ok, I understand.”

Gold runs his fingers over the textured handle of his cane, finding comfort in the cool metal as he’s always done, and he thinks back to their first interactions in Storybrooke when she had arrived to re-open the library.

It’s been a long time since the library was last open, and Gold is more than intrigued to see the newspaper torn down from the windows and the doors thrown open to let light into the dusty space. As curious about the changes in the sleepy town he calls home as anyone, he steps into the doorway, casting a long shadow into the building. There’s a squawk of alarm and the young woman kneeling on the floor cleaning the issue desk of its cobwebs springs to her feet.

“Hello,” she says, running a hand through her hair, dark chestnut and tied into a messy ponytail, embarrassed by her reaction.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I saw the library looking alive again and wanted to see what was going on.”

The young woman grins broadly. “The library is being reopened. Council grant. And I’m the one who’s going to run it.” She comes over and sticks out a hand, sees how grubby it is and wipes it hastily on her tattered jeans. “Belle French, pleased to meet you.”

“Raymond Gold, likewise.”

In that moment, despite her dishevelled appearance and the smudges of dust on her face, she is quite probably the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen, and he notices a split second too late that he is still holding on to her hand.

“Sorry, I…” He pulls away quickly, but Belle just smiles.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you around, Mr Gold.”

“I’m sure you will, Ms French.”

As he turns to leave, a sudden breeze from the doorway catches one of the scraps of newspaper pulled off the windows, and it whirls across the room, hitting him square in the face. Belle laughs and pulls it off him, and Gold can already feel his face flaming with embarrassment.

“Thank you, Ms French.”

“Call me Belle.”

“Thank you, Belle.”

Back in the present, Nicholas is setting further reading on warp.

“You ok?” Gloria asks beside him. “Lost you for a minute there.”

“I was thinking about Belle. About how we first met and started talking.” Gold looks over at the window. “I’ve had an idea, I just don’t know whether it will work.”

“I’m all ears.” Gloria smiles, she looks so excited by the prospect of them actually being able to do something to help again and he hopes that his theory doesn’t come to nothing.

“I’m not as experienced with intervening as you. How much can we do in plain sight?”

Gloria shrugs. “It’s risky, but not impossible. I’ve done it before. I know it sounds contradictory but the more people who are around, the better. There’s more chance of your actions being attributed to someone living. If you wait until there are one or two people in a room and they’ll know that what you did wasn’t either of them.”

The class is beginning to pack up their things.

“If you’re going to do something, do it fast,” Gloria adds.

In a flash, Gold is up and out of his seat, weaving down the stairs until he reaches his goal: the window. Currently closed. At least he can get around with a lot more ease than he could during his lifetime. Carefully, the noise of the class moving around and filing out muffling his actions, he flips the catch and shoulders the window up, just a fraction. Hopefully, this will work.

As the students come past him, he keeps pushing the window up. Slowly, gradually, so that no-one would notice.

Finally, he takes a deep breath that he really doesn’t need, reaches out with his cane and trips the next student to come past him, knocking the boy into Belle.

It’s the most contact he’s ever had with the living, and the touch feels strange, a bit like a pulse of electricity surging up his cane and through his hand. So much energy, so much life. It takes a moment for him to recover himself, and looking up he can see Gloria creeping down the tiered seating towards him, a nervous smile on her face.

His risky intervention, however, has paid off. Belle’s papers and books are scattered and Nicholas has gone to help her retrieve them as the flimsy sheets are blown over the floor in the slight breeze from the window. It’s very much akin to their first meeting, only without the spilled hot beverages involved. This time, he thinks, no-one is at fault, there will be no awkward apologies, and hopefully some kind of quip about this happening again.

For a moment, he wonders if perhaps he’s done the wrong thing and that Belle will be reminded of her first meeting with him, and that will stall things.

Gloria has reached him by this point and her fingers are crossed.

“Come on Nick… Please don’t be an idiot.”

Belle and Nicholas’s hands touch as they reach for the final piece of paper, and a shy, nervous smile is exchanged as they pull away and Nicholas hands the stack he’s gathered back to her.

“Thanks for humouring me about faster than light,” Belle says.

“It wasn’t humouring you, it’s a genuine query that we can learn from.”

“Thank you anyway. It’s something I’ve always liked the idea of.... Moving at the universe faster than light, but constantly moving forwards into the dark, never knowing what might be in front of you.” She laughs. “A bit like life, really.”

Nicholas smiles. “I guess you’re right.”

“It’s all just one big mystery to be uncovered. I mean, life’s an adventure and you can’t see what’s at the end of it.”

They move out of the lecture theatre together and Nicholas and Gloria race after them so as not to be trapped.

“I’m not sure about the philosophy of it all,” Nicholas is saying as they meander along the corridors. “But I think that the physics can help to explain the philosophy.”

Belle laughs. “Well, I was an English major, philosophy minor. I think I see things from a different point of view.”

“The world would be very boring if we all saw things from the same point of view,” Nicholas points out. “We’d never have made half the discoveries we have done if everyone had agreed. We’d still be thinking the world was flat and that the sun orbits us.”

Keeping pace behind them, Gloria is repeating a muttered litany.

“Don’t go into your office. Don’t go into your office. Don’t go into your office…”

Gold raises an eyebrow but says nothing.

“I’ve got to go,” Belle says presently, peeling off towards the door. “They’re expecting me at the library. But I want to continue this conversation. I still have questions about faster than light.”

Nicholas nods. “Well, I’m not teaching again this afternoon.”

“My shift ends at six. Coffee?”

Nicholas nods. “I’ll come to the library. Our machine’s still fried beyond repair. They’re beginning to suspect ghosts in the machine.”

Belle just laughs, and makes towards the doors as Nicholas goes into his office.

“He went into his office,” Gold points out, but Gloria is grinning, and after a moment, realisation dawns and Gold is grinning too.

The risk has paid off.

“It’s a date,” Gloria says happily.

“It’s a date,” Gold agrees. “As my grandson would say, this calls for a high-five.”

It’s a very satisfying feeling as their palms come together. Now all they have to do is make sure that this continues on the correct course, and there are no unexpected crashes with asteroids lurking in the dark.

Gold moves through the crowds and follows Belle back to the library. As she settles into her normal place behind the issue desk, she’s smiling like the cat that got the cream, and gives a little giggle. She’s so genuinely happy, so bright. He hasn’t seen her like this for a long time; it’s like she’s been given a new lease of life.

If Nicholas does anything to dim that brightness, Gold doesn’t know what he’ll do to the man, interfering and leaving no impression be damned.

 

Chapter Text

“So how close do you think we should get?”

“We should probably give them a little bit of privacy. They’ll be talking about physics for the most part anyway, it’s not likely to be the most thrilling of conversations.”

It’s just gone six o’clock and Gloria and Gold are hanging around outside the library, waiting for Nicholas to arrive. Belle has clocked off and come out from behind the issue desk, and she’s waiting by the coffee machine, rocking back and forth on her heels in a somewhat nervous manner. In a way, it makes Gloria smile to see that because it means she thinks of this meeting as an important one. Not necessarily momentously life-changing, but not just a casual meeting between friends, or between professor and student. All they have to do now is wait for Nicholas to arrive. Gloria wonders whether she should have stayed in his office with him all afternoon so that she could do anything and everything in her power to make sure he keeps to the arrangement and doesn’t get caught up either in an equation or in his own head, but she thought that she ought to have a little faith in him and she’d wanted to check in with Gold to see if Belle appeared to be getting cold feet. Luckily this is not the case.

“Are we sure he’s going to come?” Gold asks presently, glancing at his watch.

“Punctuality isn’t one of Nicholas’s finer points when the mysteries of the universe are at stake,” Gloria replies calmly, but if he doesn’t show within the next five minutes then she’s going to go and drag him here. Thankfully, at that precise second he comes around the corner and enters the library, going over to Belle and accepting the paper cup of coffee she hands to him. They move over to one of the small tables in the library foyer, and Gold and Gloria settle in for the duration. There really isn’t a lot of point in eavesdropping on the conversation, because even if it goes in directions they don’t want it to - not that they really know what those directions are - there’s nothing that they can do to get it back on track, and Gloria thinks it’s easier not to know what they’re talking about in case it all goes wrong and they have to listen to the fallout knowing they can’t help.

Beside her, Gold gives a soft snort of laughter, and Gloria quirks an eyebrow.

“I feel like we ought to be lying in the shrubbery with binoculars and a radio, on some kind of secret reconnaissance mission.”

“We can do that if you’d like,” Gloria says. “I’m not quite sure where we’d find some binoculars and a radio though, and I would imagine it would be more comfortable to sit on a bench.”

Then again, they don’t really have a concept of comfort, being something akin to incorporeal as they are. They don’t need to eat or sleep, they have no concept of physical fatigue except for the memory of it. They could lie in wait in the shrubbery for years if needed, but it wouldn’t achieve all that much in terms of getting Belle and Nicholas together. She looks back inside the building; the conversation is animated and both the participants are smiling. It’s not a date in the conventional romantic sense of the word, but it’s a start, and if they start as they mean to go on, then hopefully Gold and Gloria’s work should not be too taxing.

But there are so, so many obstacles to overcome first. These two people discussing warp theory over coffee and gently nursing that little spark of attraction know next to nothing about each other.

“I wonder if they’ve noticed the rings,” she says aloud. Gold turns to her.

“Pardon?”

“The rings,” Gloria says. “Nicholas and Belle both still wear their wedding rings. I was just wondering if they’ve noticed that yet. It’s not something you tend to take in when you first meet someone. You might notice that they wear a wedding ring but it doesn’t really register as something important. You don’t really care about most people’s marital status, it’s not something that matters to you. Unless you’re attracted to them and you’re trying to assess their availability specifically. I was just thinking that might be a stumbling block. No-one mentions dead spouses on the first date, and we’ve got to be prepared for both of them pulling back when they realise they wear rings.” Gloria pauses. “Nicholas’s widowhood isn’t exactly a secret, but likewise, it’s not advertised. There’s a slim chance she might already know if it’s come up in conversation with her colleagues.”

Gold shook his head. “I don’t claim to have listened in to all Belle’s conversations with her colleagues, but as far as I know it’s never been mentioned. Nicholas himself was only mentioned obliquely.”

Gloria nods. “All the same, Belle’s only been here a couple of months, and Nicholas isn’t a people person. There’s less chance of him finding out the truth through word of mouth, so we need to remember that it’s a possibility.

“Yes. Two steps forward, one step back.”

“We can always hope that it gets sorted out of its own accord,” Gloria says, knowing that she’s got to try and be optimistic about this because it’s just one of about a thousand possible setbacks. There’s the rest of Belle’s family in Boston to think about as well; even though Gold had said that his son seemed to be completely on board with the idea of Belle and Nicholas and was actively encouraging it, other people are always potential spanners in the works.

“That said…” Gold leans back against the bench. “Belle keeps looking at her rings, which she’s never done as much before as she’s done in this past week or so. It’s almost like she’s working up the courage to take them off and give herself permission to be single again. When you’ve been married a significant length of time and you never take your ring off, it becomes part of you and you don’t really notice it or feel the need to remove it. I don’t speak for every bereaved spouse, of course, but I know that if I were in Belle’s position, I probably wouldn’t wake up one day and think ‘I’m ready to move on and love again so I’ll take my wedding ring off’. Even if I was mentally ready, I’d probably only take it off once I actually met someone that I wanted to move on with.” He pauses.

Gloria nods. “That makes sense. We’ll just have to keep our eyes open.”

She continues to watch the inaudible conversation. It really is good to see Nicholas so genuinely happy again, and she hopes that with enough encouragement from Belle’s natural enthusiasm, he’ll actually take the chance to keep this happiness, rather than believing he doesn’t deserve it and pulling away.

They’re still talking as the clock keeps ticking calmly by, but since none of them have anywhere to be, they let it continue. The longer they talk and the more they connect, the less likely either of them is to bolt.

“They can’t still be talking about physics,” Gold says incredulously, watching as Nicholas eagerly draws something on a napkin. Gloria chuckles.

“You’d be surprised. Nicholas can be a man of many words when he wants to be, and all of those words are about physics or mathematics.”

“I’d already gathered that, but Belle is a creature of slightly more than numbers.”

“Does it really matter what they’re talking about?” Gloria asks. “As long as they’re talking, that’s what we want.”

“I suppose you’re right. I keep underestimating the time it’s going to take. It’s not really a relationship you can compare with your own experiences.”

“Nicholas and I met in our first year at university and we were together ever since, but we were very different people then. Young and impulsive and less world-weary. People change and their approaches to life change.”

“Yes. My first wife and I had something of a whirlwind romance and I soon vowed I’d never make the same mistake again.” He pauses. “If anyone’s got the patience to see this through and get under Nicholas’s outer layers, it’s Belle. She did it with me, after all. Then again, she might not want to have to go through all that again.”

Gloria shakes her head. “No, I think that if she was looking for something simple she’d already have gone and found it.”

Gold quirks an eyebrow, and his voice has a sharp edge to it as he speaks again.

“Do you think she’s been trying to find someone who reminds her of me? That doesn’t sound like the healthiest start to a relationship.”

“Not at all.” Gloria nods towards Nicholas in the library. “No offence, you and Nicholas are absolutely nothing alike. And I don’t think she’s necessarily looking for a challenge. She’s looking for something that will last.”

Realisation spreads over Gold’s face and he smiles. “Belle was my something that lasted,” he murmurs. “When your heart’s been broken, you want someone to protect it and keep it whole.”

Gloria’s lips twitch a little in a smile she tries to keep down. “You sound like you have first hand experience.”

“I had an… interesting rebound period after Milah left. After that there were a good few years of romantic nothingness before Belle came into the picture.”

It’s interesting watching Gold come to terms, in his own way, with Belle moving on. It’s painfully obvious that he wants her to move on, and that he wants her to be happy, and that he wants her to be with Nicholas because deep down they both know that this is the way things are going to work out. But that doesn’t mean that he can understand or accept the way that things are working out just yet.

“You seem very wise,” Gold says presently. “I feel completely out of my depth, and I’ve been around longer than you have.”

Gloria shrugs. “I might not have been in this state as long as you, but I had months to prepare for it. I knew I was going to die. I knew that Nicholas was going to mourn and eventually move on. I always wanted him to be able to go and do that, even before I passed. I’ve been prepared for this for far longer than you have, so for me this is the culmination of years of waiting. With you, everything came as a shock, to both you and Belle. It’s no surprise that it’s taken both of you longer to come to terms with it and open up to the idea of moving on.”

They fall into silence for a while, continuing to watch as Belle and Nicholas’s conversation gradually comes to a close and they stand, moving towards the doors and eventually coming out of the library where they can be overheard by their invisible observers. There’s nothing really to hear, they just say their goodbyes and move off in opposite directions, but there’s a brightness in the air, a kind of optimism, and it makes Gloria smile. For now, at least, they’re still on the right track.

“Can we take this as a good sign?” Gold asks hesitantly, and she nods.

“I think we can. There’s still a long way to go, after all.”

Gold nods. “We should probably go after them.”

Despite the blank statement, he makes no move to follow Belle as she rounds the corner and disappears from sight. Gloria continues to watch Nicholas’s back moving towards the science buildings until he’s too far away and too indistinct in the twilight.

“Yes,” she agrees. “We probably should.”

But still, neither of them actually get up from their bench. It’s almost as if something sacred has happened and they’re loathe to eavesdrop on it, just as they left their charges alone whilst they actually interacted. One of the subtleties of this state is knowing when you’re not needed, Gloria thinks. She knows that she and Gold have always kept their distance until interaction is needed. Now seems to be the right time to keep their distance again. Maybe, subconsciously, they know that their presence would be detrimental. Although neither Belle nor Nicholas are really attuned to them, haunting them now would not be a good idea when they are on the cusp of letting a new relationship into their lives. The slightest reminder of what they have lost could upset the entire applecart, at least in Nicholas’s case. Let him alone with the memories of this conversation, and she’ll reconvene with him in the morning.

So instead of moving, she turns to her companion and for the first time, they really talk about themselves, rather than their other halves.

Chapter Text

 

For a long time after she gets into her apartment, Belle just leans back against the door,  grinning like an idiot. She hasn’t felt this way for such a long time and she just wants to take time to enjoy the lightness of her heart. She’s been on a date. Well, it can’t really be called a date, can it? Oh, whatever it was, she went out socially (well, sort of), with a man she likes. That’s kind of a date, right?

Eventually she moves away from the door and settles on the sofa, glancing at her watch. Half-past seven. She should probably think about getting something to eat. She wasn’t confident enough to suggest to Nicholas that they extend their little coffee date into a dinner date. Maybe that will come with time. Strange, she was always the impulsive one in all her previous relationships and she wonders why she’s so guarded now. She knows the reason deep down, of course, but she really doesn’t want to think about it. Belle’s afraid of having her heart broken again.

She doesn’t blame Rum for breaking her heart. It wasn’t anything he did. Well, he did die, but there wasn’t anything that could have been done to prevent that. But his passing did break her heart and it’s taken so long to put it back together again and feel that perhaps it is now strong enough to take a step out into the world again, although she knows that it won’t take another blow. She’s not the go-getting young thing she once was, and now she wants safety and security. Nicholas represents that safety and security. He’s dependable in his habits and the way his mind works. All the same, she knows she has to take it slowly or else she’ll crumble at the seams once more.

She grabs her phone and hits Neal’s speed dial before it gets too late over in Boston for her to call. It does seem a bit strange perhaps that her stepson is the first person she thinks to call with her news, but Neal had been the one to surreptitiously encourage her to pursue Nicholas, and she hasn’t made close enough friends in California yet to be able to unburden herself to them. She thinks of Ruby, Mulan, Ariel her other friends that she left behind in Storybrooke, but she hasn’t spoken to them in so long. They had been good friends to her throughout her grief, but ultimately they moved in different circles now, and Belle feels like the awkward odd duck when she thinks about them, all coupled up happily and having babies.

She feels old beyond her years in comparison with them. A widowed grandmother.

Neal’s voice on the other end of the phone pulls her out of that grim train of thought.

“Hey Belle, what’s up?”

“Hi Neal. Is now a good time to talk?”

“Sure. Henry’s in bed and Emma and I were trying to find something to watch. You’re on speaker, by the way. Emma’s demanding a foot massage.”

“So many channels and nothing good on any of them,” Emma’s voice moans. “And I am not demanding!” There’s a pause. “Hi Belle. How are you?”

Belle smiles. “I’m ok. I’m… I’m really good, actually. I had a date.”

“Oh yes?” She can hear the smile in Neal’s voice. “Tell us all about it,.”

“Not all about it,” Emma adds. “I mean, we love you dearly but there are some things that you just don’t want to imagine your mother in law doing.”

“Em…” There’s the sound of a hand meeting a forehead and Belle can see Neal’s facepalm in her mind’s eye. She giggles. “Sorry, Belle. Tell us about your date. Is it that physics professor you spilled coffee over?”

“Yes. Professor Rush. Nicholas.”

“Did you spill coffee over him again, naturally resulting in him having to strip off to avoid scalding?” Emma teases.

“Emma! You were the one who wanted to avoid the gory details!” Neal sighs again. “I really do apologise, Belle. You were saying?”

“It wasn’t really much of a date.” Belle can feel heat rising in her cheeks at the thought of Nicholas stripping off in front of her. She’s really not ready to think about that just yet, so she pushes it aside. “We just drank coffee in the library and talked about the speed of light. But, you know, it felt like a date.”

“Well, I’m very happy it went well,” Neal says. “Are you going to see him again?”

Of course she’s going to see him again, she sees him three times a week in astrophysics lectures. Seeing him again outside of an educational capacity though…

“I don’t know. I’d like to.” She shrugs as she realises what it all comes down to. “He makes me smile.”

“You deserve to smile, Belle.” Neal’s voice is earnest. “But there’s something else, isn’t there?”

Neal’s always been astute, from the first moment he met her and was giving her the once over as if to check that she was suitable for his father. As soon as he had given her his seal of approval, however, he had become just as protective of her as he was of Rum, and now Belle can tell that he’s trying to size up Nicholas without ever having met him. Belle sighs, but before she can make any attempt to put her confused feelings into words, Neal speaks again.

“Hold on.”

There’s some scuffling and shuffling on the other end of the phone, and then she hears Neal’s voice, clearer and less distant.

“All right. You’re not on speaker anymore and I’m in the kitchen.”

“Thanks, Neal. I mean, I don’t mind Emma hearing all this, but I just think it’s easier one on one, you know?”

“I know. What’s up, Belle? I know you said you were happy and I believe you, but I can tell there’s something else.”

“I don’t know. I think I’m just scared of making that step, you know? It’s such a small thing but it feels so… final. Like I’m starting a new part of my life, which is good, I know that. I know I can’t live in the past and I know, brutal as it is to say it, that Rum’s not going to come back and if I want to love again, it will be with someone else.”

“You have so much love to give, Belle, and you deserve to receive it.”

“I know. I keep telling myself that.”

Rum may be gone, but she is still here and her world is still turning in its own way. Why shouldn’t she seek happiness with someone else? Of course, if Rum were still here and she was still happily married then she wouldn’t be thinking about Nicholas at all. She wouldn’t even be in California, she would never have met him. But the fact remains that Rum is not here and she is in California and she has met Nicholas and she is thinking about him.

“I just… I’m scared that if I move on with someone new it means I’m cutting off my previous life.”

“Belle, you’re not. You still have me and Emma and Henry and the nugget. We’re still your family and that’s never going to change. Don’t feel like you’re betraying us for wanting to move on and be happy with someone new. I know how much you loved Dad; I will never doubt that.”

Belle sighs. “I always thought he was my soulmate. I still do.”

“And he is. That doesn’t mean you can’t have another relationship now he’s gone. He’s hardly going to be censuring you from the great hereafter and rain down thunderbolts if you so much as look at another man. He’d want you to be happy. He’d want you to take that remarkable capacity to love that you have and share it with someone else.”

There’s a long pause. Belle does believe Neal. She knows that Rum would want her to be happy. She herself wants to be happy, and she thinks that Nicholas is the one to make her so. It’s just such a big step to take. And there’s Nicholas’s reactions to consider as well. She comes with a lot of baggage, and maybe he’s not going to be prepared for that.

“You’re still coming to us for Thanksgiving, aren’t you?”

Belle’s brow furrows at the sudden change of tack. Thanksgiving is still five weeks away.

“Yes, of course.”

“Well, why don’t you just see how it goes until Thanksgiving, and we can have a long talk about it then. I mean, you’re welcome to talk about it before then, but maybe having a definite date in mind will help.”

“Yes. I’ll do that. Thanks Neal.”

“Any time.”

The conversation moves away from Nicholas and Belle’s date, and Neal goes back to Emma and the three of them discuss life in Boston and Emma’s pregnancy, and by the end of their chat Belle’s feeling a little less conflicted. A song lyric floats back to her. Some day I’ll die, for now, I’ll live. Five weeks to Thanksgiving. Five weeks to see what happens with Nicholas. And if nothing happens in that time then that’s ok, it’s not like there’s a time limit on this thing. For all she knows, Nicholas has his own reservations to come to terms with. All the same, there’s a fluttering of butterflies in her stomach that makes her unable to eat much, and she glances over at the photograph of her and Rum that sits on the shelf beside the door, and she opens her mouth to speak to him before shaking her head. Not now. Not tonight. It feels too much like taking a step backwards. The last thing she wants to do is exorcise Rum’s presence from her life, but talking to him now feels wrong. She’s never expected any kind of answer, but always found comfort in thinking that he was listening. Now she’s not so sure that she wants to share what’s on her mind with him. Not for fear of retribution, but because it’s private to her. She shared it with Neal, but that’s different, for Neal’s a friend and this is a thing for the living, not the dead. But to share details of her prospective new relationship with her husband doesn’t seem right. What purpose would such a one-way conversation serve, anyway? Would it be simply keeping him up to date with the world of the living? Would it be asking his permission to date again? Seeking his approval in some way? Belle doesn’t know, and doesn’t care to dwell on it any further, trying to keep her mind in the present and the future rather than the past. Right now, in this moment, she’s happy, and she intends to stay that way.

Sleep, however, has other ideas. It’s a long time coming as she relives her coffee date, and when slumber does arrive, it turns against her. Her unconscious mind shows her flashes of Rum on that fateful day, gasping and clutching his chest, leaning on Neal as Belle calls 911. Ambulance, hospital, stark white sheets and bustling nurses and doctors, words like stent and quadruple bypass and intensive care. Rum’s grey face, so pale and scared as they prep him for emergency surgery and he grabs Belle’s hand and tells her that he loves her so much, and Belle kisses his brow above the oxygen mask.

And then the surgeon telling her he’s so sorry, Rum didn’t survive the surgery, his heart stopped on the operating table and refused to restart.

Belle starts awake with a howl.

She wipes the tears from her face but they keep coming, and she smacks her pillow in frustration. Why now? Why tonight? Why, when she had decided that she was going to be happy and she was going to move on, is her brain throwing her a curveball like this?

“I just want to be happy!” she screams, muffled by her pillowcase as she continues to sob. It’s been so long since she has felt really, truly happy.

It’s just a nightmare. Just a dream. It’s not the first time she’s relived Rum’s death in her dreams. It’s not a sign of anything, it’s not some kind of supernatural vision, Rum taunting her from beyond the grave. Rum wasn’t like that, wouldn’t be like that. This is all just her own mind. But the timing could be better, coming as it does the night after her date.

But maybe this is a sign. Maybe she’s not as ready to move on as she thought she was. Maybe thinking about Nicholas in that way was a bad idea. She’s obviously not ready for a new relationship. Best to keep her distance. At least this has happened now, and their relationship can end before it’s begun instead of causing pain later down the line.

Belle sighs and buries her face in her pillow, letting it soak up her tears.

 

Chapter Text

 

Gloria is feeling rather pleased with herself as she sits in her usual place outside Nicholas’s office. He’s still smiling today and he shows no signs of burying his head in the sand and ignoring his feelings. He’s working just as hard as he normally does, but there’s something of a spring in his step this time and she just hopes that it remains and he doesn’t start to doubt himself. He hasn’t locked himself in his office overnight working fiendishly, and he hasn’t yet gone to the coffee machine. It’s still broken; apparently she’s a lot better at rewiring these things than she thought and the maintenance crew remain baffled. Soon enough he should be making the journey over to the library for his first daily dose, and with any luck, Belle will be there and they can continue where they left off.

“We’ve got a major crisis.”

Gloria startles at the words in her ears and twists to see Gold standing behind her, his expression nothing short of frantic and his hair messy and sticking up in places, as if he’s been raking his hands through it in agitation. His fingers are white-knuckled where they grip his cane, and the entire spectacle is nothing short of alarming. She glances back across at Nicholas’s office.

“Not him, the other one!” Gold exclaims. “Come on, we have to get to the library, there’s not much time!”

“Gold, what’s going on?” Gloria asks, getting to her feet and following him away from the physics building.

“I’ll explain on the way, but we can’t be too late!”

“Gold, what’s happened?”

They’re running. They never run. Gloria doesn’t think she’s run anywhere since she died. Their existence has always been a slow and calm one, never with this level of tremulous activity. But here they are, tearing across the campus on feet that will never stumble, legs that will never tire, neatly dodging the first students of the day who are trudging to their early morning lectures.

“Belle’s about to do something irretrievable!” Gold yells to her. Gloria has to appreciate how well he runs considering the cane. Phantom muscle memory must be good for some things.

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know, and I’ve already spent two hours cursing myself for that! Something’s upset her badly and I don’t know what! She was bloody distraught when I went to check on her earlier and now she’s thinking with her gut rather than her heart or her brain and she’s doing what she always does when she freaks out!”

“What’s that?”

“Overreact!” Gold replies, his voice panicked. “She’s learned to control her impulsiveness over the last few years but when she’s in a bad way emotionally she still makes these awful snap decisions!”

“Like what? Gold, what’s going on!”

“There!” They skid through the library double doors. Belle is nowhere to be seen, but her computer is logged on behind the desk and Gold grabs Gloria’s hand, dragging her over to take a look at the screen. It’s Belle’s student profile, showing all the courses she’s enrolled on. More specifically, it’s the de-enrolment page, and her mouse is hovering above the button for one of the courses that Nicholas teaches. Gloria feels a shiver run down her spine.

“Christ, Gold, what happened?”

Gold shakes his head sadly. “I don’t know. Something must have spooked her last night. I thought it might have been something Nicholas said, but they were on such good terms when they left the library that I didn’t see how it could have been.”

“And Nicholas is still in a good mood this morning,” Gloria agrees. “If he’d done something to hurt Belle this drastically, he wouldn’t be happy. He’s stubborn as a mule and absolutely infuriating at times, but he’s not cruel, not like that.”

“I know. I haven’t known him long but I’ve guessed that much.” Gold sighs, keeping an eye out for Belle, or for any strange looks in their direction from either of her other colleagues behind the issue desk. “My second thought was that it was something one of her colleagues said, they’re not the least judgmental bunch, but she hasn’t had chance to speak to them since. Whatever this is, it happened last night between leaving here and her waking up this morning. Something really upset her, enough for her not to want to see Nicholas again.”

Gloria’s heart is beating painfully in her mouth, or at least, the memory of it is.

“We’ve got to do something,” Gold says. Gloria looks up at him, her hand hovering over the mouse.

“Are you sure?” she says.

“What? Yes! Of course I’m bloody sure! You know as well as I do that they’re meant to be together and we can’t let her jeopardise that like this!”

“I mean, are you sure that intervening right now, like this, is the best thing to do, or will that push Belle to do something even more desperate? I don’t know her like you do, you’re going to have to make that decision.”

Gold takes a deep breath.

“Distracting her usually works. Distracting her and derailing her. Whenever she got into a complete tizz about things, distracting her from whatever crazy thing she was about to do would work, and she’d calm down. The only thing was, I was always there to calm her down and make her see sense, or one of her friends at home. There was always someone there.”

Gloria nods, understanding.

“Ok, we’ll take that risk.”

She glances over to the other librarians, but neither of them are paying her any attention, and she quickly opens the task manager, changing the password on Belle’s account and locking the screen. Most computers have a time-out lock-out, it won’t look suspicious.

“What are you doing?” Gold asks, still panicked.

“Buying us some time to think,” Gloria says. An idea comes to her. It’s probably the most audacious idea she’s ever had, especially performed in broad daylight with no preparation. “You distract her, stop her coming back here. I think I know what to do. And do have a think about what might have tripped her up.”

Gold nods. “I think I know what to do.” He speeds away into the recesses of the library and Gloria sidles up to the office door. It’s open a fraction, and she needs to time her entrance perfectly.

The library doors slide open and a gaggle of students rush in, borne on a fierce, cold autumn wind. Gloria takes advantage of that to slip inside the library office, the door banging shut behind her being attributed to the wind. Beyond the office is the tech room; she’s spent long enough on this campus to know where everything is. The door’s locked, but thankfully one of the librarians has left her keys on one of the desks, and Gloria grabs the bunch, flipping through them to find the one that will let her into the tech room.

In the background, muffled through a couple of walls, she hears an almighty crash and the sound of general confusion, and she smiles to herself. It appears that Gold is performing his task with aplomb, and she only hopes that she can do her work before whatever it was that he caused is resolved and Belle returns to her desk. At least her password change will have bought them a little bit more time.

Finally the correct key presents itself, slipping easily into the lock and turning. Gloria rushes into the tech room, looking at the racks of firewalls, load balance boxes, proxies, routers, servers… She’s going to have to be careful; it can’t look too much like blunt vandalism, but something that could have happened by accident.

She moves over to what is obviously the network router, wings up a quick prayer that all the students have saved anything they might be working on in the network, and pulls out the power cable from the back of the box, dropping it down to make it look like it just fell out. It takes a little while for the commotion to start, as all the computers in the library suddenly drop off the network and all the pages begin to crash. Gloria can hear the librarians coming through towards the tech room and realises she’s left the door open. She races across, shuts it and locks it on the inside, and returns to the router. Just one thing left to do. Thank god she’s already dead and can’t be electrocuted.

She picks up the network cable and bites down on it, scraping it with her teeth until she meets copper wire with a jolt. Grimacing against the metallic taste, she continues to worry it between her teeth until it’s a horrible mess of fine wire and plastic, and she manouvers it back into its place. There’s an impressive spark and a little puff of smoke, just as one of the librarians uses her own keys to get into the tech room. Gloria slips out past her, confident of a job well done as the librarian gives a shriek, exclaiming about mice in the tech room biting through the wires.

She goes out to the issue desk, hovering beside it. Belle is still nowhere to be seen, nor is Gold. Finally, he comes over to her from the depths of the library, one eyebrow raised to question.

“I think we’re sorted for a short term fix,” Gloria says. “It won’t hold long though, so we should probably start thinking about the cause.”

Gold nods. “I think I have it.”

“Good, because Nicholas is probably going to be coming in to get coffee in the next five minutes and if we can get things back on track right now, that would be perfect.” She pauses. “What did you do? Whatever it was, it sounded very impressive.”

“Ah.” Gold looks a little bit sheepish. “Well, one of the reshelving carts has dodgy brakes. I took the brakes off and assisted it in running into a bookshelf where Belle was working. I hadn’t intended for it to knock quite so many books off the shelf and I really didn’t intend for one student to get concussed with a copy of ‘A Brief History of Time’. But Belle’s been rushing around putting books back and will be doing so for the foreseeable future.”

In spite of it all, Gloria has to laugh, but then she remembers the reason the catastrophe occurred in the first place.

“So what do you think caused it?” she asks tentatively.

“I think Belle had a nightmare,” Gold says with a sigh. “After I passed, she had a lot of nightmares, usually about me and my death. They still come back occasionally when she’s emotional; she had a spate of them just around the time she was moving to California, but she didn’t think anything of them then. I think she’s had a nightmare and she’s got it into her head that it’s a sign she shouldn’t be with Nicholas. So she panicked and instead of thinking logically that it was just a dream, she decided to cut off all ties.” Gold curses and smacks his fist against the issue desk. “I knew I should have gone after her!” he says. “Last night, I wanted to give her some space, not bring death into this new part of her life, but it found her anyway and I wasn’t there!”

Gloria rubs his arm. “Gold, it’s not your fault. You can’t stop nightmares, you can’t do anything to tell Belle that she’s allowed to move on, that you want her to move on. Nothing you could have done would have changed last night.”

Gold looks mournfully over his shoulder as Belle reappears from the stacks.

“We’re so close to them,” he murmurs. “And yet we’re so far.”

“I know,” Gloria says. “Believe me, I know how much it hurts to watch them fall apart and know there’s nothing you can do. All we can do is hope.”

She nods over at the doors. Nicholas is coming through, and he gives Belle a little wave as he goes over to the coffee machine. She doesn’t return it, hurrying back to her desk and attempting to log back into her computer, her brow furrowing when her credentials don’t work.

“Belle, honey, the network’s gone down, didn’t you hear the commotion?” one of the other librarians says. “It’ll be a couple of hours before the maintenance guys get down here with a spare cable.”

“Right.”

Belle looks down at her computer screen, then across at Nicholas drinking his coffee. He’s looking at her with his head on one side, and Gloria crosses her fingers. She tries to cross her toes as well, making Gold give a soft huff of laughter.

Nicholas approaches the desk and leans over it.

“Hi.”

Belle finally looks up at him, and a wan smile creeps across her face.

“Hi.”

“I, erm, I had a good time yesterday,” Nicholas begins. “And I was wondering if we could perhaps do it again sometime. It’s nice to find someone who’s as interested in hyperspace as I am.”

Belle seems to be giving the matter serious consideration. A few feet away from her, the other librarians are unashamedly listening in, and Gold looks like he wants to smack them both in the face with his cane.

“Nicholas, I’m not sure…”

“It doesn’t have to mean anything,” Nicholas says. “Just two friends with similar interests drinking coffee.”

It’s the word ‘friend’ that does it. Gloria sees the moment when Belle goes from dilemma to sureness. The reassuring notion that for now, they can just be friends.

Belle nods.

“All right,” she says. “I’d like that.” There’s another pause. “After class tomorrow?”

“Sure. Maybe somewhere off campus,” he adds, eyeing Belle’s nosy colleagues.

Belle nods. “Good plan.”

As Nicholas leaves the library and Belle attempts to get back to work, both of them are smiling, and in an uncharacteristically tactile display of happiness, Gloria throws her arms around Gold, who squeaks then pats her back awkwardly.

“Crisis averted.”

 

Chapter Text

 

It’s been three weeks since they managed to stall Belle’s frantic desperation and gently move things back onto the track that they ought to be on. For the most part, Gold and Gloria have stayed out of the way, just watching their charges and letting them make their own way through the world, letting them get used to being friends and get used to the idea of having another person in their life getting closer and closer to that vulnerable core. They’ve needed very little nudging in the right direction, really, regularly meeting outside of class for coffee or lunch, or just to talk in Nicholas’s office about the things Belle is learning on his courses. Gloria is proud of the way Nicholas is letting Belle in by little degrees, and Gold is proud of the way that Belle has embraced this new friendship and not bolted as she had shown signs of doing. Perhaps with the knowledge that they can just be friends for however long they need to be, there’s less pressure on either of them to make a decision regarding their romantic future. A decision will have to be made soon, because the attraction hanging in the air between them is palpable and if either one of them decides to walk away because they don’t think that their feelings are reciprocated, then Gloria and Gold will have their work cut out for them.

But for now, everything seems to be on an even keel, and Gold is content to watch the two of them get closer.

He’s sitting beside Gloria on their usual bench, watching through Nicholas’s office window as he exuberantly explains something to Belle, casting aside papers and sending post-its flying as he tries to find more writing space. Gloria herself is unusually subdued. She’s always quiet, but there’s a pensive expression on her face now, and Gold turns to her.

“Is everything all right?”

She gives a slow nod.

“Something’s changing,” she said. “I can feel it.” She pauses. “I don’t feel as centred as I did three weeks ago.”

Gold worries his lip between his teeth; it’s a tell he picked up from Belle and subconsciously carried through to the afterlife with him. He can feel it too, the change. It’s been so gradual he hasn’t noticed it until now Gloria has drawn his attention to it. He can feel his mind wandering more, keeping him less in the moment, as if he’s being drawn elsewhere.

“Do you think this is it?” he asks. “Do you think our work here is done, and we can move on?”

Gloria shrugs. “I think it’s coming to its close,” she says. “I don’t claim to know how it works. You only die once. I’m as in the dark as you are. Maybe there isn’t a definitive point where we cross over. Maybe we just fade gradually, as we’re needed less and less.”

The thought chills Gold. He was never a great believer, but the idea of just, well, vanishing into nothingness, isn’t a particularly welcoming one. He can feel the memory of fear in his veins, and all of a sudden he wants to stay right where he is.

“I don’t think it’s something that you can fight.”

He turns sharply to see Gloria’s expression becoming a little amused.

“It’s a symbiosis, in a way,” she continues. “That’s what I’ve come to see it as over these last few weeks. We stick around because they need us. But I think in a way, we need them too. And as they move on and let go of us, so we let go of them.”

Gold nods. He’s not quite sure how comforting the thought is.

“We’ve got movement,” Gloria says, changing the subject as the lights in Nicholas’s office go out and the two figures, silhouetted in the dim light of the corridor, leave the room. Neither Gold nor Gloria make any move. They’ve been leaving Belle and Nicholas to their own devices more and more, letting them live and move on uninhibited.

They leave the building together and stay talking for a long time outside, obviously getting ready to go in opposite directions, but then at the last minute Nicholas turns and comes in the same direction as Belle. They pause near Gold and Gloria’s bench, and their conversation is clear to hear, even though they don’t usually listen in.

“I was wondering,” Belle is saying, “if you wanted to come over for dinner next week. I’ve just realised that I’ve never cooked for you.”

Gold gives a little chuckle and Gloria quirks an eyebrow.

“It’s a good sign,” he assures her. “I always cooked for Belle, she never cooked for me. I do believe that this might be a romantic overture.”

Gloria laughs. “Well, here’s hoping that it gets the right response.”

“I… That… That would be lovely,” Nicholas finally agrees.

“Why don’t you come over Wednesday?” Belle suggests. “There’s no school Wednesday afternoons.”

And they both have an early start on Thursday morning, Gold reflects, so by suggesting Wednesday she’s already set limits in place. Yes, this is Belle taking control of the situation and taking the first steps to move it up a gear at her own pace, in her own comfort zone. All he can do is hope that Nicholas’s and Belle’s comfort zones overlap.

“Well, at the end of the day, it can just be seen as an evening together with a friend,” Gloria says, giving voice to Gold’s thoughts.

He nods, but something at the back of his mind is still uneasy, and as Nicholas and Belle say their goodbyes and go in their opposite directions at last, he stands.

“Gold?” Gloria looks up at him.

“I’m going home with Belle tonight,” he says. It’s a risky move, they normally keep their distance after Nicholas and Belle have had ‘dates’, to keep the aura of death away from them. But Gold can’t help remembering the last time a major step was taken in the relationship and the fallout that almost happened because of it. If Belle is going to have another nightmare that might set her back, it will be tonight, after she’s made this step. He has no idea what he might be able to do to stop it, but he wants to be there just in case, to leap in and head her off at the pass if he needs to. Hell, he’ll try and turn visible and tell her in no uncertain terms that he wants her to move on and be happy with Nicholas, if that’s what it takes.

Gloria nods her understanding, but doesn’t move herself, and Gold walks away, trailing after Belle as she leaves the campus and walks home to her apartment, not too far away. She’s smiling as she moves around the place, and Gold watches from the corner by the door, hidden in the shadows, unobtrusive. There’s nothing to show that her subconscious might turn against her, but then, there wasn’t last time, either. All in all, the evening yields nothing of worry, and after Belle retires for the night, Gold stretches out on the sofa, thinking. He closes his eyes, wishing that he could sleep again. The night stretches on, and in the next room, Belle sleeps on undisturbed.

Gold stares at the ceiling and lets his mind drift, off to a place he doesn’t know and a place he’s not sure he’s ready to go to yet. Something’s definitely changing, and he wishes that he knew what. He almost doesn’t notice when Belle emerges next morning.

It’s early, the day still not fully dawned outside, but she is still smiling the same contented smile that she was the previous evening. Nothing has happened, and Gold breathes a huge sigh of relief. He wonders how much of last night was a trap that Belle had set herself, testing the waters, inviting Nicholas over the apartment and giving herself enough time to cancel if she had another nightmare.

But it’s clear that there have been no nightmares, and now she can surge forward as she planned to do.

Gold jumps off the sofa as Belle comes to sit down on it, and in that moment he notices something else.

Belle is not wearing her engagement and eternity rings. Her wedding ring is still on, but there is no sign of the diamonds. Once she’s settled on the sofa, she spreads her hands over her skirt, dropping the rings onto her lap, along with a fine chain.

She threads the engagement and eternity rings onto the chain, and sits looking at her wedding ring for a long time.

His heart leaps to his mouth with anxiety as she begins to speak.

“Rum, love… I know I haven’t spoken to you for a while and I know you don’t mind that. I know that everyone will think that talking to you again would be taking a step backwards just when I want to move forwards. But I think that this needs to be said out loud, as it might be the last time I talk to you like this.”

She twists her wedding ring round and round her finger.

“Rum, I love you and I always will, but I’m taking my wedding ring off now. I don’t feel like I’m married to you any more. It’s not a bad thing. It just means I’m ready for the next stage of my life now. I love you. But you can love more than one person at once, and I’m ready for that now. Ready to let someone new in. But you’ll always be here. Close to my heart.”

She eases the wedding ring off her finger and slips it onto the chain with the others before fastening it around her neck and tucking it down the collar of her sweater. For a long time, she doesn’t say anything more, just staring at her unadorned fingers.

“Well, this is new,” she murmurs, rubbing the indent where the wedding ring used to sit.

Gold just smiles. “Oh, my darling,” he whispers. “You have my blessing. You always have.”

She needed to make the choice, he realises now. Just like she took matters into her own hands in inviting Nicholas to dinner and making that next step, she needed to make the choice to let herself be open to love again. She needed to be in control of that step, because the grief is still too fresh in places, and going with the flow, letting herself be swept up in it all, was terrifying her. She needed to make that decision to move on, to make a clean break once she knew she was ready, rather than just putting a toe in the water. Although Belle is impulsive, she has always lived by the maxim that she chooses her own fate. Moving on from Gold is another choice that she has to make, another choice that she couldn’t bear to have taken out of her hands, even if it was just by chance and not by anyone else making a decision on her behalf.

But now that decision is made, and Gold knows that there will be no more nightmares. Well, there will still be nightmares, but they’ll just be dreams now, not terrifying omens that hold her back. She made a conscious decision to move to California and she’s made a conscious decision to move on now. She feels in control of her own fate, and it’s this bright, happy, confident Belle that Gold has missed so much whilst he’s been watching over her these past three years.

Gloria is waiting for him when he returns to their bench. Nicholas seems to be in much the same spirits as normal, and Gloria gives Gold a quizzical look as he sits beside her.

“Everything’s fine,” he says. “Everything’s more than fine.”

Gloria smiles. “Now all we have to do is hope that Nicholas is feeling the same way.”

“I’m sure he is,” Gold says, although having known Nicholas all of a month, he’s not entirely sure he’s qualified to say so.

“I think he is. I just don’t want him to get cold feet and pull away. Still.” She smiles. “There’s a dinner date to be had, and even if something does go wrong at this late stage, Belle is moving on. You’ll move on too, soon.”

Gold can feel it now, that slight sense of detachment, and again, he doesn’t want to leave. Not yet. Not whilst Nicholas is still a wildcard and not whilst Gloria is still patiently waiting and watching.

He gets the feeling he’ll be sticking around a little longer.

Chapter Text

 

Belle is unaccountably nervous as she moves around her small kitchen preparing dinner. Although neither of them are officially framing this as a romantic date, rather than just an evening with a friend, there is something undeniably more intimate about moving their conversations from a neutral setting to her own home. If nothing happens and they continue on as friends for a while longer, then so be it, but at least she’s made this first step and shown him subtly that she’s interested in something more. She gives a little smile as she watches the pots bubbling on the stove. It’s been so long since she’s been in the dating game that she’s almost forgotten how it works, but she knows that food is always good. She’s keeping it simple, pasta in a creamy sauce and salad; she’s not the world’s best cook and doesn’t want to accidentally poison the man she’s grown to care for so much. From what she’s heard of Nicholas’s life, though, he’s worse in the kitchen than she is and seems to subsist solely off coffee and nicotine.

She looks down at her hands, still finding it a little strange for them to be bare, but the thought causes her no guilt or fear. Perhaps in the future she will remove the rings from the chain around her neck and put them safely away, but she’s not quite ready for that yet. In a way, it’s been cathartic, talking about her loss with Nicholas and learning of his own. Somehow, knowing that he’s been through much the same experience as she has makes it easier to envisage moving on and finding lasting love and happiness with him. It’s only in the last week that their respective states of widowhood have come out. Nicholas had asked her why she’d come to California from Maine, and she felt that he deserved the truth rather than a vague misdirection - not a lie, but not the full truth. It was about the same moment that she had realised he wore a wedding ring, and in his turn he had told her about Gloria.

Belle thinks that maybe people who’ve had their hearts broken in this way, in this most pure and painful of ways in which blame cannot be cast on either side, gravitate towards each other. Perhaps they both give off the same air of melancholia.

She turns the heat down under the pasta and leaves it to cook, going into the living room and looking around critically. The place is clean and fresh, and she looks at the photographs dotted around, biting her bottom lip and wondering if perhaps she should move the ones of Rum, before shaking her head. He was a part of her life, one of the biggest parts, and he still is. Nicholas knows that, and she isn’t going to start attempting to deny Rum’s existence because she’s worried about what a man who might not even think of her in a romantic light might think. She highly doubts he’s packed away all his pictures of Gloria.

The photographs stay, and almost on cue, the doorbell rings. Belle smooths down the front of her skirt, checks her hair in the fuzzy reflection of the TV, and goes to answer.

Nicholas gives her a slightly shy smile, holding up a bottle of white wine.

“I thought I ought to contribute something since I’m getting a free meal.”

Belle takes the bottle and steps back to welcome him into the apartment. She’s never really had much of a head for wine, but she’s pretty certain that this is a good one, and she goes back into the kitchen to pour. When she returns with two glasses, Nicholas is still standing in the entry to the apartment, looking around her domain.

“You can sit down, you know,” she says, handing him a glass and chinking her own against it in a toast to anything. “Make yourself at home.”

“You have so many books,” Nicholas says, gazing around at all her bookshelves.

“Yeah. I couldn’t really bring myself to part with any of them when I left Maine, so I had them all shipped here.”

“Your apartment’s like a library in microcosm,” he continues. “It’s beautiful.”

Belle isn’t sure that anyone has ever described her book collection as beautiful before. Extensive, yes. Scary, yes. Ridiculous, yes. Rum had said it suited her, and he had willingly helped her add to it and created her a library of her own within the pink house, but she can’t remember him ever describing it specifically as beautiful.

“Thank you. I do my best. Well, I don’t at all, actually. I have absolutely no self-control when it comes to buying books and I don’t even try to curb my enthusiasm.”

“You shouldn’t.” Nicholas takes a sip of the wine, savouring it for a moment before he speaks again. “Your enthusiasm is wonderfully refreshing in all aspects. You don’t tend to do anything by halves, do you?”

Belle shakes her head with a laugh. “Never. My parents were always equal parts exasperated and overjoyed by my whole-hearted dedication to anything I put my mind to. I think they were pretty relieved when my ultimate passion turned out to be books. At least it was quieter than if I’d decided to play the drums.”

Nicholas gives a huff of soft laughter and a smile creeps over his face. He doesn’t smile often, Belle’s noticed, but he smiles more often with her, and something inside her preens a little bit at that fact.

Presently the kitchen timer goes off and Belle goes to see to dinner. When she returns, a steaming bowl of pasta in her hands, she sees Nicholas studying the picture of Rum, Neal, and Baby Henry. She’s mentioned Neal, of course, but only in passing. She bites her lip, puts the dish down on the table, and steels herself.

“Dinner’s ready,” she says, and Nicholas comes over, settling himself with his wine as Belle serves. He tops up her glass, and polite small talk is exchanged as they begin to eat.

“That’s my stepson Neal,” Belle says, deciding to bring up the topic before it gets under her skin. “And my grandson Henry. Well. Step-grandson technically, but I’ve always been his nana.” There’s a screamingly awkward pause. “Yeah. I’m a grandmother.”

Nicholas’s expression is amused. “Well, I think I can safely say that you’re the most unconventional grandmother I’ve ever met. I’m sure not many children can say that their grandmothers are astrophysicists.”

Belle laughs. “I’m hardly an astrophysicist. I’m a librarian with a fascination for space.”

“I think that makes you an astrophysicist. Definitely an honorary one at least.” They continue to eat in silence for a while, but the awkwardness has gone. Belle’s a grandmother and Nicholas doesn’t seem in the least bit phased by it. “Do you see them often?”

She shakes her head. “Not since I moved, but I speak to them a lot. We’re close and we love each other as family, but we live very different lives. I’m not all that much older than Neal; we don’t really have a traditional mother-son relationship. We’re friends first and foremost. I’m going to see them for Thanksgiving weekend, which will be nice. But I don’t miss them, not in that sense. They have their lives and I have mine. What about you?” she asked. “I feel like I’ve just been talking about myself.”

“That’s all right. I like hearing about you, and it means I get to enjoy the food whilst you’re talking.”

It’s nice to see Nicholas a little bit less tightly-wound than he usually is, a little bit more teasing. The fact he’s lighter now makes Belle think that perhaps something more can come of this.

“All the same,” she continues, “I would like to know more about your family. Where are you going for Thanksgiving?”

Nicholas just shrugs and shakes his head. “There’s not really much to tell. I don’t really have any family. Well, there’s the extended web of cousins and step-cousins and twenty-first cousins half-removed and all that nonsense, but they’re all still back in Glasgow. We were never particularly close to start with and I haven’t seen them in years. To be honest I think we moved to California to get away from family.”

Belle bites her bottom lip, wondering what to say. She thinks about how lonely it must be to spend Thanksgiving alone at a time when family were supposed to come together. She couldn’t fathom spending the weekend apart from Neal, Emma and Henry.

“So you’ll be alone on Thanksgiving?”

Nicholas gives another non-committal shrug. “We never really celebrated Thanksgiving properly,” he says. “We never celebrated it back in Oxford, obviously, and we never really caught on to the thing when we moved out here. It’s just a long weekend to me, it doesn’t hold any kind of significance. I usually just spend it grading papers and watching old Westerns.” He smiles, and Belle has to smile too, because there’s no sign of regret or sadness in his face as he discusses the forthcoming holiday, and there’s no point in feeling sorry for him if he’s not feeling sorry about it himself. By mutual consent they move the conversation away from family and onto safer ground: books, music, films. Belle’s surprised and delighted to find that she and Nicholas share several of the same eclectic favourites, and they manage to rant about the inaccurate physics of some science-fiction movies for almost half an hour, stopping only when Belle remembers that she made chocolate mousse for dessert and she’d hate for it to go to waste because they were too busy talking about anti-gravity boots to eat it. As the mousse is eaten, though, Belle can feel that the evening is coming to a natural conclusion, and she’s pleased with how it’s gone. Neither of them have been scared off, and her cooking went off without a hitch. They finish the wine, exchanging pleasantries and talking about nothing of much importance. Whilst Belle wouldn’t go so far as to say that she doesn’t want the evening to end, she would say that she would very much like to see it repeated.

Eventually, Nicholas gets up to leave, and Belle walks him to the door.

“Thank you for coming,” she says.

“My pleasure.”

“And thank you for the wine.”

Nicholas gives a soft laugh. “That was also my pleasure. I know nothing about wine, so I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“Oh, I enjoy wine in general, I don’t think that you could have gone wrong with a bottle.” She grins, and in that moment, with the front door half-open and Nicholas halfway out of it, she finds herself leaning in towards him, unable to take her eyes off his face, watching his tongue dart out nervously to wet his lips. Could this be it? Does he want to take the next step just as much as she does. She thinks he does, there’s a glimmer of desire in his eyes, but when they’re just a few inches apart, he pulls back.

“I, erm, I should probably go,” he mutters, sounding a little awkward but more annoyed with himself than with her for initiating the almost-kiss.

“I’ll see you in class tomorrow?” Belle suggests tentatively, and Nicholas nods firmly.

“Yes. Thank you for tonight. I had a great evening.” He means it, he’s not just being polite, and Belle wonders what it was that made him pull back. Maybe he’s just not ready to move on yet, like she had not been ready when the idea of entering a relationship with him first presented itself in her mind those few weeks ago.

“We should do it again,” she says. A firm statement, no vague ‘sometime’ added in there. Nicholas nods. “Definitely. You should come over to mine. I’m no great chef but I’ve been told I cook a decent steak.”

Belle smiles. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Nicholas just nods, and moves down the corridor towards the stairwell with a wave.

Re-entering her apartment, Belle looks at the stacked plates in the sink and wraps her arms around herself, feeling truly happy for the first time in a very long time.

 

Chapter Text

 

This is the crunch point. Gloria is standing outside Nicholas’s office, glaring in through the window with her arms folded and hoping that her peeved expression will somehow get through to him. It’s the morning after his date at Belle’s, a date that seemed to have gone incredibly well from what Gloria and Gold could see of it through the window, and he’s been pacing up and down his office ever since he got in. This is the crucial moment where he will decide either to pull back and give up or to go for it. Gloria is quite prepared to do anything and everything in her power to make him go for it. She hasn’t told Gold about her final desperate mission, leaving him to watch over Belle. She feels that this is something she needs to do alone. This hesitation that Nicholas is experiencing is between just the two of them, with no outside influence. If anything is going to reassure him that it’s all right to move on, then it has to be something that Gloria does. She glances around at the campus as it comes to life, knowing that she doesn’t really have long in which to make her move and she might have to get creative. Nicholas has a class with Belle this afternoon so she’s going to have to get him out of this state of confusion before then, or else something catastrophic could happen. Well, catastrophic is probably putting it a bit strongly. It’s not like the world’s going to end for one rash decision on Nicholas’s part, but Gloria knows that she couldn’t bear to watch him panic and throw away the first real chance of lasting happiness that he’s had since her death. A small part of her doesn’t want to be left alone with him, trying to make him move on, after Gold takes that step into the hereafter. Belle is ready to move on, and right now it seems that their entire existence here in this world rests on Nicholas’s decision. Soon it will be Thanksgiving and they’ll have a few days apart to think things over. He needs to be on the right track before then.

Gloria returns her attention to the office. Inside the room, Nicholas rakes his hands through his hair. He hasn’t looked at his whiteboards or papers at all, and she already knows that giving him time to think is really not a good idea. Gloria jumps back, startled, as Nicholas strides over to the window, pushing the sash up and leaning out. His eyes stare through her completely unseeing, and she breathes a sigh of relief, watching him leaning on the windowsill, taking deep breaths of the cool November air. The warmth of the office radiates out through the open window, and it makes Gloria shiver with the memory of feeling cold.

An idea comes to her. It might not come to anything, and it’s very risky, but it wouldn’t be the first time that she’s done something slightly unorthodox in the name of preventing a rash decision on either Belle or Nicholas’s part.

She grabs the windowsill and heaves herself up through the gap, sprawling in an ungainly heap on the floor just as Nicholas moves away and pushes the sash down. Right. She’s inside, a little closer now, and she can do something. She’s not quite sure what she needs to do, but she doesn’t think that it will have to be anything ridiculously dramatic like convincing the library staff that they have a rodent infestation - they’re still nervous about entering the tech room and there are mousetraps all over the library. Gloria feels a tad guilty about her deception, but not that much. It served its purpose after all.

Nicholas, she knows, is on a knife-edge, and all he needs is a little push in one direction or the other. Just a little influence to let him know that really, his best chance of happiness lies with Belle and letting himself be open to a relationship with her. This dithering is uncharacteristic of him; he’s usually a man of action in that once he’s made his mind up, that’s it. There’s no changing it. Which is why she needs to get him to make his mind up in the right direction.

Nicholas’s frantic movement finally stops and he sits down, tossing his ever-present notebook onto his desk and staring at it for a moment before going about his day. In the middle of the notebook is a bright green post-it note peeking out. Not for the first time, Gloria considers writing him a note. Dear Nicholas, you have my permission to date Belle. She’s lovely and you met her for a reason. Love Gloria.

She gives a snort of laughter. Whilst he would no doubt appreciate the bluntness, subtlety is key. All the same, the post-it gives her an idea, because she happens to know that this particular post-it note has scrawled on it Belle’s phone number. A plan begins to form in her mind. Just a little push, that’s all he needs now that she’s seen how much he’s wavering. A little tip in the right direction. Just a little sign from above to let him know he’s on the right track. Divine intervention in the most innocent of ways. Nicholas is not a spiritual man, she knows that much, and she knows that any small measure of faith that he might have had died when she did. He wouldn’t believe in some kind of sign from above, but he does believe in fate when the mood takes him, and he doesn’t generally believe in coincidences. If she can make something happen, then perhaps she can play on that small part of him that trusts in something bigger than himself.

The only trouble of course will be executing the plan when Nicholas never leaves his notebook alone, and she doesn’t have Gold to provide distractions in the form of runaway shelving carts or anything else he might happen to get his hands on. All she needs is the post-it. She inches closer to the desk, crouching down and closing her hand over the little book whilst he’s distracted turning his computer on, but then she has to jump back as he grabs it and flicks through the pages. Whilst the majority of his scrawling is equations, he jots down various other important bits and bobs in there, like appointments and indeed phone numbers. It’s a miracle that he can find anything useful in it and that he’s on time for anything he needs to go to, but it’s the way he’s always worked and Gloria won’t knock the system now.

He pauses for a split second at the post-it, checks a few figures and puts the notebook back. Gloria groans and rests her head against the desk, squinting at the sliver of green. It’s strange how so much can rest on something so small and so difficult to reach.

Just then Nicholas stops typing and gets up, locking the computer and leaving the office. Gloria’s somewhat surprised by the suddenness of the gesture but she doesn’t complain about it, flicking through the pages of the notebook and grabbing the post-it, slipping it away safely for use later, and as Nicholas returns a couple of minutes later with a paper cup in hand, she realises what caused her stroke of luck. The coffee machine has finally been fixed so Nicholas no longer has an excuse to go over to the library and see Belle every morning. However, it does give him an excuse to leave his office if only momentarily. The machine has actually been fixed for a few days, but Nicholas has continued to go over to the library for his coffee. They had taken this as a good sign, and the fact he has not done so today makes Gloria even more convinced of the urgency and necessity of this little quest of hers, hopefully her final intervention before she leaves Nicholas to his own devices once and for all. There’s no time to lose, but now she just has to play a waiting game. For all she’s a little desperate, she still can’t afford to do anything that might cause suspicion.

So she stands in the doorway, watching Nicholas work and waiting for him to leave for his lectures. If she times it right then it’ll be a good couple of hours before he returns to the office. Every fibre of her being, barely existent as she is, is thrumming with the tension. She doesn’t think she’s ever felt this much nervousness when she’s intervened in Nicholas’s life before, possibly because this time she feels like there’s more that can go wrong.

Finally he gets up and leaves, and Gloria slips out behind him. So far, so good. She waits until he’s out of sight around the corner before taking out the little post-it, slightly battered now, and tracing the loopy numbers written on it. Another idea comes to her, and she smiles. There’s no harm in making her intentions a bit more obvious. He’s not going to know that she’s behind it, after all.

The main problem with her plan, Gloria feels, is that she needs to procure a pencil, and in the middle of the corridor surrounded by students rushing about here, there and everywhere to get to their first lectures of the day, she laughs out loud. It’s the little things in life and death that make it. Who would ever have thought that someone’s future could rest on something as ridiculously small and inconceivable as a lost soul being unable to surreptitiously pick up a pencil. In the end, she slips into the campus stationery shop, grabbing a pencil from the display and hiding in the corner by the envelopes to make a little addition to the post-it, and she admires her handiwork.

If this doesn’t do it, then she’s going to have to get creative.

X

On his return to his office after his morning lectures and meetings, Nicholas raises an eyebrow when he sees a bright green post-it stuck to the door. It’s not unusual for his colleagues to leave him notes like this when he’s out of his office, as he’s not the most reliable of people to contact via any other means. As he comes closer, however, he sees that the post-it has not come from any of his fellow professors, but is in fact his own. It’s the post-it that Belle’s phone number is written on. He frowns, going into his pocket and taking out his notebook, rifling through the pages, but sure enough the note has gone. Of course it’s gone, because it’s now stuck on his door. How did that happen?

He peels the note away and reads the neat printed handwriting in pencil along the bottom.

Found this on the floor under your door. Thought it might be important!

There’s no name, just a good samaritan returning his many pieces of paper. He evidently sheds them often enough.

Letting himself back into his office, he looks at the note, putting it back into his notebook in roughly the same place that it had been before and continuing to stare at it. After a moment he grabs some tape and sticks it firmly to the page. That’s not something he wants to lose again. It would have to be Belle’s number. He’d had such a good evening last night, and then he’d ended up panicking at the last minute, and then he’d spent most of the rest of the time up until now going back and forth in his mind about what to do and where to go. He hasn’t begun a relationship since Gloria. He can’t remember how these things work, and they worked very differently back when they were both broke students in Oxford twenty odd years ago.

He looks again at the note.

Thought it might be important!

Yes. Yes, it is very important, and he will not lose it again. Nor will he lose his nerve.

Nicholas takes out his phone and taps out a quick message.

Thank you for last night. I had a great time. Sorry I rushed off.

God, he must look desperate, staring anxiously at his phone waiting for the girl he likes to reply to him. All those times he’s made acerbic remarks when his students’ phones go off in the middle of classes; he swears he’ll never do it again.

The phone pings.

Not a problem, I’m glad you enjoyed yourself and the food. Sorry if I made you uncomfortable.

Not at all. Coffee after Astrophysics 101?

There’s a long pause and Nicholas drums his fingers along the desk as he waits for a response, and he looks down at his wedding ring. Soon, he thinks. Not quite yet, but soon. It’s taken a long time to get to this stage, but acceptance is finally arriving. Gloria’s not here. But he is. And Belle is.

And maybe it’s time to stop beating himself up about that fact.

The phone beeps again.

I’d love to.

 

Chapter Text

Gold has always loved family Thanksgiving, even after he departed this world. Ever since Henry arrived on the scene, Emma and Neal have always hosted Thanksgiving, and this year is no different. The family is all sitting around in the evening after a very successful dinner (the turkey was only slightly burned this time; Neal’s skill in the kitchen is definitely improving). Henry has gone to bed and Belle is curled up in her favourite chair whilst Neal rubs Emma’s feet on the sofa. They talk about anything and everything, and Gold watches from the corner of the room, unable to resist being a bit closer to his family, all together in one room again, with everything so friendly and happy. For the first Thanksgiving since he passed, Belle is bright; she’s smiling and laughing readily and there is no hint of sorrow in her eyes. Whilst she’s been getting better throughout these past three years, Thanksgiving was always a sad time for her, for all of them, knowing that there is one less person around the table now. This year is different. The empty space in the room seems less obvious, being filled with love and laughter instead. Gone but not forgotten, no longer mourned but celebrated. This is the first year where they’ve really looked back over Gold’s life without any kind of sadness, laughing about tales of disastrous Thanksgivings gone by, the memories of inedible food and near misses when it came to almost burning down the kitchen. They’re comfortable; their lives have grown around his absence, and Gold is content to just watch over them for as long as he has left. He doesn’t think that it’s going to be very long at all. For the last few days, the centred feeling that Gloria described has been slipping ever further and further away from him, leaving him feeling cast adrift more often than not and clinging desperately to this half-life he has at the moment. He knows logically that he needs to stop fighting it and just let the acceptance come. This is what he’s been working towards when he’s been helping Belle to move on, after all. The eventual release from this world. All the same, he’s really still not ready to leave. Belle and Nicholas are moving along on an nice equal footing, and he knows it’s only going to be a matter of time, but Gold feels that there really ought to be a turning point, a single moment in which everything becomes set on its new path and he knows it’s time to move on. It’s the not knowing that’s really annoying him. How will he know for sure that his presence really isn’t needed any more? Surely it’s best to hang around for a little bit longer until he’s absolutely certain.

Presently he’s brought back into the present and away from his nebulous worries by the conversation turning in much the same direction as his thoughts.

“So, Belle,” Neal begins. “How’s it going with your charming professor?”

Belle snorts. “I really don’t think that charming is the best word to describe him. If you ever meet him then you’ll see what I mean. Brusque, acerbic, sarcastic… Definitely not charming.” But for all these words, a light blush is colouring Belle’s cheeks and she shifts in her seat with a little wriggle of mingled happiness and embarrassment. “Things are going very well, thank you.”

“I take it you’ve had lots of theoretical discussions on life, the universe and everything,” Emma says. “Any… practical demonstrations?” she adds with a wink.

“Emma!” Belle exclaims, her colour heightening. “There’s been nothing like that. We’re taking things very slowly. After everything that’s happened, I don’t think it would be sensible to rush into anything.”

“Despite the fact his name is Rush,” Neal points out.

“Yes, can’t be doing rushing into a Rush,” Emma agrees with an earnest nod, and they all fall about laughing.

“It’s going well,” Belle finishes. “I have hope that we’ll get there in the end.” She gives a soft snort of laughter. “I can tell he likes me, and I think he wants it to go further just like I do. Maybe we’re both doing a little bit of tiptoeing. He’s a widow as well, you see. Maybe we’re both a bit hesitant and afraid of moving on. Well, I’m not afraid of moving on. I’m ready to.” Here she looks down at her hands again, devoid of rings, and touches the slight bump under her sweater where they sit against her heart. “I don’t think we’ve actually got to the stage of telling each other that we’re ready to move on and take that next step. But we see each other regularly and we’ve had a couple of dates. Nothing fancy. Just, you know, getting to know each other.”

“What’s he like?” Neal asks. “Apart from brusque, acerbic and sarcastic and definitely not charming. I know they say that opposites attract, but I never really believed it until now. At any rate, he sounds like he makes you happy.”

“Oh, he does,” Belle says, and Gold doesn’t think that he’s ever been gladder to hear those words. “He definitely makes me happy. And even if nothing does come of this, well, I wouldn’t want to lose that friendship.”

The room falls into silence for a while before Belle takes a long sip of her tea and speaks again.

“He’s lonely,” she says. “He’s never actually said it, but I can tell that he is. He’s a loner, certainly, but no-one can live without anyone. He seemed sort of adrift when I first met him, in his own little world of maths and not much else, but now he seems a bit more with it.”

“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve had that effect on someone,” Neal points out.

“I know,” Belle says, and she smiles. “Nicholas is very different though. It’s a different kind of isolation, I can’t really describe it. He’s got a self-imposed hermit type thing going on and I’m not sure where it’s come from. Buries himself in his work all the time, you know the type.”

Neal nods. “I know what you mean. But if he makes you happy, then that shouldn’t matter, right?”

“No,” Belle agrees. “And we don’t just talk about physics all the time. We do have conversations about boring things like normal people.”

“I don’t think you could ever be classed as normal, Belle.”

Belle just rolls her eyes and lets Neal have his joke. Gold can’t help moving a little bit closer into the circle, sitting down in the vacant chair that Henry had been playing in up until it was time for him to go to bed.

“I know it’s stupid,” Belle says, “but I think that we found each other for a reason, me and Nicholas. I think it was fate. Divine intervention. Call it what you will. There’s a connection there that I haven’t felt to anyone new for a very long time, since I met Rum really. And it’s such a long train of events that led us to each other. I could have gone anywhere when I left Maine, but I chose California; I could have done anything but I chose to study; I could have studied anything but I chose to study astrophysics, and here we are.” She pauses. “Something about it feels predestined, like someone out there was working to bring us together.”

“Well, you know what they say,” Emma says. “People who die before their time leave unfinished business and hang around until they make sure it’s finished and they can move on. If he had any unfinished business then it would be with you, making sure that you were all right.”

Belle raises an unconvinced eyebrow. “You’re suggesting that Rum’s been orchestrating this entire thing?”

Gold looks up with alarm and for the first time wonders if perhaps his subtle efforts haven’t been all that subtle. Should he move now or would that arouse more suspicion? He looks from Belle to Emma to Neal and back again. Emma just shrugs.

“I wouldn’t say that he was some kind of incorporeal mastermind. I’m just saying that it’s a possibility, you know, that he’s been looking out for you. You know that he would want you to move on and be happy. Maybe this is his way of making sure you’re going to be ok.”

“I’m not sure that I buy the idea of matchmaking ghosts, but…” Belle fingers the outline of her rings again. “It’s a comforting thought. I like it.”

Gold relaxes again. He’s never previously given any thought to what Belle’s opinion of his antics would be, assuming that it would never really come into question as she would never really know what he was doing, never really believe that he could still be here after passing away so long ago.

“I think I can take it from here though,” Belle says. “I’m not going to lie, it’s been a strange and emotional few weeks, but I think I know where I’m going.”

Neal smiles. “I’m glad to hear it. And Belle, you have no idea how glad I am to see you smiling like that again.”

Gold has an idea, because he’s feeling just as grateful himself. These last few years have been tough on them all, but now life is moving on in the way that it is meant to. There’s a new baby on the way, a new relationship around the corner. For everything that is taken away, something else will be given. That’s the cyclical nature of things. Gold’s sat in on enough physics lectures by now to know that the universe is just one big cycle of things. Everything comes to an end and everything begins again. Perhaps for the first time, he no longer feels that slight worry of what will happen if this budding relationship between Belle and Nicholas ends up not working out despite his and Gloria’s efforts. Things will come around again. Belle will heal from it just as she has healed from everything else. If there is one thing that the past few years have shown Gold, it is that ultimately, Belle is resilient.

At length, the conversation in the living room comes to a natural conclusion as the night begins to draw in, and the living souls make their way to bed, leaving Gold alone in the darkened living room. It’s a place he’s been in many times over the course of Neal and Emma’s marriage, both before his death and afterwards, but he knows deep down that this is the last time he is going to see it, and the time has come to make peace with that. The thought no longer fills him with the same dread as it once did. The room will still be here, Neal and Emma will still be here, and there is no need for him to still be here too. They can all take care of each other perfectly well. His presence is no longer required, and for that he is happy.

It’s time to make his peace with this world, to tie up all the little loose ends that could tie him here.

Time to say goodbye to family.

It’s such a simple thing, but it’s one that he was denied in life. One minute he had been here and the next he had not been; there had been no sense of closure. Gloria and Nicholas got that final goodbye, but there was something deeper underlying their relationship, something left unsaid that has kept her tied to her husband for all this time. Can it really be that the simple act of farewell is going to be it for him?

Neal and Emma’s bedroom door is never closed, only pushed to, for Henry’s sake, and Gold opens it the slightest fraction, slipping inside. His son and daughter-in-law are curled up together, the very picture of happiness, and in the gloom Gold can make out the sonogram picture from Emma’s first scan.

“I love you all,” he whispers. “Even you, little nugget,” he adds to the sonogram. “Don’t give your parents too much trouble, all right. I’ll be going soon, and I’ll never meet you, but you need to know how loved you are.”

A final fond look, and he knows he can’t drag it out any longer. “Goodbye, Neal, Emma, little one.”

He peeps into Henry’s room. “Hang in there kid,” he says. “Take care of your little sister.” Neal and Emma are keeping the new baby’s gender a surprise, but something tells Gold that the latest addition to their family will be a girl. “Goodbye, Henry.”

It’s cathartic, he feels as he pads back down the stairs in the darkness, saying a goodbye that he never got the chance to say in life. Over the past few years, he’s never been in any doubt of his family’s love for him, and he’s never been in any doubt that they knew of his own feelings towards them. But there’s a great deal of weight in really being able to express those feelings properly.

All that remains is that final goodbye to Belle, his beloved, the light of his life who is finally shining so very brightly once more. At least Gold knows that when the time comes, he’ll be ready.

Chapter Text

 

One thing that has always made Gloria’s existence easier is that Nicholas never tends to move much. His life is always so centred around the university and their own home that he’s always in one place or the other. Following him around is never all that much of a challenge. Today though, he’s a man on a mission, the nature of which she can’t even begin to imagine.

It’s Thanksgiving weekend and Gold is out of town with Belle, off in Boston with his family. Gloria’s happy for him, she knows that he wanted to see them again before he moved on, and now he has the chance to bring proper closure and be ready to go when Belle is ready for him to go. The relationship between Belle and Nicholas has been moving on nice and steadily and Gloria thinks that her last intervention with the post-it note has had the desired effect. Nicholas is more open again, there’s been no more frantic pacing around as he wrestles with his feelings and his guilt. All the same though, today he seems a little bit nervous and on edge as he drives away from the campus, down through the city. Sitting in the passenger seat beside him, Gloria wonders what on earth he’s doing. For so long his life has been confined to just a few blocks, it makes her intrigued and uneasy in equal measure. Nicholas is a creature of habit for the most part. He’s not given to fancy or sentimentality because he doesn’t see the point, and Gloria knows that many would call his pragmatism downright cold. But he wasn’t always like that. She remembers her life with him, her real life, before she got sick and everything started to go wrong because this wasn’t something that Nicholas could apply science or maths to in order to make it all right again. They were so stupidly in love, and when it comes down to it, Gloria knows that the love they shared never waned, just that the vagaries and injustices of life and death got in the way. Would Nicholas have become as closed and cool as he is now if she hadn’t died? She doesn’t know, and doesn’t care to think about it, because there’s nothing she can do to change the status quo. That is something she has to leave up to Belle, and Gloria holds no doubts that the other woman is more than up to the task. She’s already worked wonders. All Nicholas needs to do is have the courage to continue letting her in like he has been doing.

They keep driving. The buildings of the city move by, becoming further and further apart, and as they drive alongside the ocean, Gloria realises with a jolt where they’re going, and she watches Nicholas’ face carefully as he drives. It’s strange. He’s never liked driving over here in the US, grumbling about the wrong side of the road and having the gearstick in his right hand. Until she got ill, Gloria had always done most of the driving for them. There’s concentration on his face like there always is when he’s behind the wheel – it’s probably the only time in his life when he’s not thinking about physics at the same time – but other than that, he’s showing no signs of emotion, and Gloria looks out of the windscreen again. It’s so long since she’s been along these roads, and she can already feel the tears welling up in her eyes. This state of afterlife has never affected her like this before, she’s always accepted it with the same calm rationality that she accepted her inevitable death. But even she is not immune to sorrow and grief. Like she has often thought to herself – the one death you can never get over is your own, and that’s true now more than ever.

They reach their destination and Nicholas parks up, looking unseeing at the steering wheel for a long time, finally getting out. Gloria manages to slip out behind him before he closes the door and she sits gently on the car bonnet as Nicholas crosses the road and takes a look out over the ocean, leaning heavily on the wall that separates him from the waters below. Although the sunshine is bright, it’s a cold November day and the wind from the sea is biting, whipping Nicholas’s hair around his face and causing him to hunch up inside his coat, crossing his arms around himself, making him look smaller and thinner than he really is. Gloria doesn’t feel the chill, she never does, but she still shivers unrelated to the temperature.

This place is where, two and a half years ago, Nicholas scattered her ashes. She wanted to be laid to rest like this, in the ocean where all things are connected, so some of her could stay here with Nicholas and some could make her way back home to her parents in whatever roundabout way she needed. She remembers the frank discussion with him in the hospital, not realising that she would still be around to bear witness to the moment.

Nicholas hasn’t been back here since that day, and Gloria’s never blamed him for that. There are some things that are too painful to be revisited too soon. Perhaps this thing with Belle has allowed his heart to heal enough to make this trip and it’s one of those things that he feels he has to do before he can take the next step and move on properly, the final link to the past holding him back that he has to deal with in whatever way is best for him, like Belle and the choice to take off her wedding rings and think of herself as single again. It’s not any kind of anniversary, either of their wedding or her death, and Gloria thinks that he’s come today because there’s no chance of any encounter with Belle at a time when he needs to be alone. Still, it’s probably better this way than to attach any kind of symbolic meaning to it. With such traditions it’s easy to fall into trapping patterns that either lose their meaning or never come to an organic end.

Gloria almost falls off the car bonnet when Nicholas speaks.

“Well, here we are, Glo.”

For a moment, she thinks he’s speaking to her as she is now, that somehow he’s known about her presence in his life for all these years.

“I know it’s ridiculous talking to you because you’re not here and you always knew that I never believed you’d be here, but there are things that need to be said out loud and talking to you is easier than talking to myself or some quack therapist. And I figured that if you were going to be anywhere, you’d be here, so here I am.” He gives a snort of self-deprecating laughter. “Christ, if the rest of the department could see me now they’d really think I was a lunatic.”

It’s the first time he’s ever talked to her. Gloria has never expected him to talk to her, and hearing him now, she doesn’t know what to think. Gold always expressed unease when Belle talked to him, thinking that she was somehow going backwards in her grief processing, but Gloria doesn’t think that it’s the same for Nicholas. On the contrary, she thinks that perhaps this is the last thing he needs before he can move on. So many times she has sat in his office whilst he works, willing him to forgive himself and wishing that there was some way she could make him see that his guilt is unfounded. Maybe this is the way.

“It’s been a long time, and I still think about you every day. I’m still surrounded by your memories everywhere and I don’t think I’d have it any other way because you’re always there to remind me about the man I was before you left. The man you loved.”

“Nicholas, I still love you,” Gloria murmurs. “I always will. Nothing about you will change that, nothing you do will change that.”

He can’t hear her, she knows that, but she can’t help hope that the message will get through.

“For these past years you’ve been reminding me… I’ve been reminding myself… of just what I lost when I lost you. And truth be told, love, I think I lost myself far before I lost you, and I’ve been trying so desperately not to let your loss be in vain that it got to the stage where I didn’t think I could ever find myself again, where I didn’t think that happiness was meant to be in my life again because you weren’t there anymore and there was no point, that work had been my comfort whilst you were alive and now you’re gone I can’t let that go.”

Gloria cries unashamedly, knowing no-one can see or hear her grief, least of all Nicholas. She’s known that Nicholas blames himself for not being able to cope with watching her die; she knows it from the way he’s thrown himself into his work to the detriment of practically all else, but to actually hear him admit it in his own words is something completely different. Maybe saying the words out loud will allow him to come to terms with them and move on.

Nicholas’s shoulders are shaking and his voice is low and tremulous.

“But now there’s Belle. And she’s so lovely and so wonderful and so different, she’s just right. And it all happened so naturally, so easily, without thinking.” He pauses. “You always said that things go wrong when I stop to think, so maybe it’s time I just stop thinking.”

Despite her tears, Gloria has to laugh.

“I think it’s time that I stopped fighting it,” Nicholas continues. “Because you told me that I would love and be happy again, and if it’s going to be anyone, it’s going to be Belle. I’ve spent so much time unable to forgive myself. But I think it’s time for me to let go of that now.”

Gloria slips off the bonnet and moves closer, coming up beside Nicholas. She wants so badly to touch him, to hold him and tell him that she forgives him and she wholeheartedly approves of his decision to stop beating himself up about something he ultimately had no control over.

“You were always warm. Always forgiving. And I know that you would forgive me almost anything. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you, love. I just couldn’t bear to watch you fade when you’d been one of the brightest things in my life. You needed me, and I wasn’t there, because I was a coward. And I am sorry.”

“You were there when it mattered, Nicholas,” Gloria says. “Despite it all you were there at the end. You pulled through in the end.”

“You always told me that we had to learn from our mistakes and move on. Forgive. I know that were you here you’d forgive. But since you’re not, I have to forgive myself. It’s time now. Time to learn and move on. I love you, sweetheart, but now I’m letting go.”

Gloria howls. Not because he’s letting her go; that was the entire point of her existence here on this plane. No, she wants nothing more than for him to move on. But because she wants so desperately to comfort him. She’s seen him cry before, so many times, especially in those first few weeks after the funeral when he’d been signed off work. But then she had always kept her distance and although it broke her heart to see him drowning so, it was easier to keep her composure. Now she’s right here beside him, and she’s so happy for him and so tortured by her inability to communicate and reassure him that he’s making the right decision that all she can do is cry.

They stay there for a long time, until Gloria cries herself dry and Nicholas decides that it’s time to turn around and go home, and composure and quick thinking is required to avoid being left behind with a long walk and surreptitious hitch-hiking ahead of her. Nothing more is said. There’s nothing more to say. He came out here to say his piece and get it all off his chest and clear in his mind. Now it’s done. The grieving process isn’t complete, Gloria thinks that in a way it never will be, but this part is complete. He’s ready for Belle now, ready to surrender into a new love and give it his all, with nothing overshadowing him.

The drive back home is quiet and thoughtful, but the air is lighter than it is been for a very long time. Gloria thinks back to the words that she and Gold exchanged about Belle and Nicholas when they first met, not all that long ago in the grander scheme of things.

Belle brought the light.

Nicholas brought the calm.

They’ve done it again, this time for each other. No compromises, no bending, just being themselves and learning to love again in the same way they always did, despite the losses they have suffered.

Later that evening, Nicholas’s phone buzzes. It’s Belle, asking how he is. Gloria watches as he replies, honestly, that he’s knackered but happy, and invites her out for dinner after she gets back from Boston the next day, to save her worrying about cooking after her long journey.

At some point, as the plans are made and the future is mapped, Nicholas moves his wedding ring to his opposite hand. He’s ready to move on.

In the end, Gloria does the same. She is too.

Chapter Text

 

Despite the fact Belle’s flight was delayed and she spent most of the journey listening to an elderly couple in the seats next to her bicker almost constantly about everything from child support payments to the price of cheese, she’s surprisingly chipper as Nicholas walks her home from their dinner date. It was nothing special, a little hole in the wall diner he’d introduced her to during one of their many little coffee dates, but that’s what she likes about him. There’s no pressure with Nicholas, there’s no real need to impress him. It’s an easy relationship, a slow one. That’s not to say it’s not as good as the first explosive throes of new love, but at her time of life, and having gone through everything that she’s gone through, it’s what Belle needs. No pressure, just the knowledge that things will happen in their own time.

This date has definitely been a Date, even if a somewhat impromptu one. Something’s changed a bit, a something that’s been changing for the past week or so ever since that evening in her apartment. They haven’t moved any further in their relationship since then, but Belle thinks that tonight might be the night they actually decide to take that step, to seal their romance with a kiss. No pressure. Just her and Nicholas.

They reach her building and Belle chances to take his hand, squeezing a little, and Nicholas returns it with a smile.

“Thank you for suggesting that. I don’t think I’d have been in the right frame of mind to eat anything proper if I’d been on my own. I’d probably just have scarfed an entire box of pop tarts.”

Nicholas snorts and looks her up and down. “I don’t think that an entire box of pop tarts would fit inside you.”

“Oh, I’m full of surprises, believe me.”

It’s cold out, but Belle doesn’t want to go inside just yet. She wants to stay in this moment a little longer.

“Nicholas,” she begins, since he shows no sign of wanting to let go of her hand. “I think I’d like to kiss you.”

A small, shy smile, almost schoolboy-ish, quirks the corner of Nicholas’s mouth.

“I think I’d like that too,” he replies, and Belle takes her chance, leaning up as he leans down, her lips meeting his in the middle.

He’s soft and warm and a little tentative, but so is she, and although their noses bump and Belle giggles, kissing isn’t really a skill that’s forgotten, just honed to new partners over time. She brings her other hand up to his cheek, his stubbly beard rough against her fingers. She enjoys the texture, and for the briefest of moments wonders what it might be like to feel it in other places, but those thoughts are chased away by the present. No, it’s not exactly the shooting stars and fireworks moment described in so many romance novels, but it’s still sweet in its own way.

She breaks away, grinning, and Nicholas is smiling too.

“That was nice,” she says.

“Yes, it was,” he agrees. “I think we should definitely do it again.”

“Right now, or at some indeterminate point in the future?” Belle asks.

“Well, the future’s pretty big.”

Belle nods. “Infinite, one might say.”

“Maybe we could try it now, just in case?”

“I’m on board with that.”

There’s less hesitation this time, but they still can’t seem to get their noses in the right place. It’ll come with time.

This time, as she breaks away, something catches the corner of her eye, and Belle turns.

For the briefest of moments, just a flicker before it fades, she sees Rum. He’s just standing there, watching her and Nicholas, and he smiles and nods. Belle blinks, and he’s gone. Just a fancy? Idle imagination? Hallucination? She thinks back to what she and Emma and Neal were talking about over Thanksgiving, the idea of her being Rum’s unfinished business. Maybe she’s just imagining it, her brain trying to provide her with a final piece of closure, knowing that Rum’s given her new relationship his seal of approval, but she’s not so sure. Not now she thinks about it, because Rum hadn’t been alone. There had been another figure beside him, a blonde woman in rose pink and grey whom Belle now recognises from a photo seen once in Nicholas’s office.

Hallucinating Rum she could understand, but hallucinating Gloria as well?

X

For a long time, Nicholas can’t say anything, he can only stare at the empty space that for a split second had been occupied with Gloria and Rum.

“Belle,” he begins, because he really needs to check he’s not going mad but at the same time he can’t think of a way to approach the subject without it sounding like he’s going mad. “Did you, erm, see that?”

Belle gives a slow nod. “Yes. I saw…”

“Gloria and Rum?”

“Yes.” She looks over at him. Well, at least they’re both going mad together if that’s the case.

“What do you think it means?”

Belle just smiles. “I think it means that this is what’s meant to happen. Us. This. I think it means we’re on the right track.”

“How…” For someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts or any kind of afterlife, Nicholas is having some trouble processing what they’ve just seen.

“You know, sometimes the deceased stay with us, waiting until they’re sure we’ve moved on before they can move on themselves. Giving us a helping hand from beyond, as it were.” Belle doesn’t seem at all phased by the idea, and he can see how it can be comforting and explain what he just saw.

Gloria looked happy. Whether that’s because she truly is happy (was happy - grammar rules and ghostly apparitions don’t go together) or because that’s how Nicholas likes to remember her, he doesn’t know, but either way, he’s going to take it as a good sign, and he holds Belle’s hand a little tighter. It’s time to move on, for all of them.

X

“Did they just see us?” Rum asks, still watching Belle and Nicholas as they stare straight through him and Gloria, who nods.

“Yes, I think they did.”

“I thought no-one could see us?”

“Well, evidently they could just then.” Gloria just smiles, and Gold looks frantically from her to Belle and Nicholas and back again.

“Is this going to be a problem? Have we just set them back three months again?”

Gloria raises an eyebrow. “Did you always worry this much when you were alive?”

“Frequently. The calm, composed landlord to whom no emotional plea could ever get through was actually a nervous wreck on the inside most of the time. Especially when Belle and Neal were involved.”

“Well, do you think we’ve set them back three months?” Gloria asks.

Gold looks across to Belle and Nicholas again. They’re still holding hands, still close. They haven’t moved from the position that they had been in only a few moments before, and they show no signs of being at all perturbed by the sudden momentary appearance of those long dead. Perhaps a little confused and pondering, certainly, but not like they’re particularly worried about it.

“No,” he admits to Gloria. “No, it looks like they’re set for the duration.”

“Then I don’t think we need to worry about setting them back,” Gloria says calmly. “They’ve both made that choice now, the choice to move on. It’s taken them a long time, but they’ve done it, and with a conviction that means very little will waver them. You said it yourself after Belle took her rings off, that any more nightmares would just be nightmares and she wouldn’t be discouraged. This is the same. Sort of.”

Gold gives a snort of laughter. “So what does this mean?”

“I think it means that it’s time for us to go,” Gloria says. There’s the slightest hint of sadness in her eyes and she gives a long sigh.

“Do you want to stay?” Gold asks gently. She shakes her head.

“No. Well, perhaps a little. All the time we’ve been here, we’ve been here with the express purpose of helping them to move on, and now they have done. There’s no reason for us to remain. But now that they have moved on, part of me wants to stay and see how it all works out for them. We were with them during their lowest time, through the worst of their grief and indecision, and we saw them through it, through to happiness. I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, but now I can’t help feeling a little bit like we’re being cheated out of seeing the happy ending.” She gives a little laugh and moves away from Belle and Nicholas, turning her back on them and picking her way down the darkened street. Gold follows her, and as he moves, he can feel that time is running out, that the final tenuous grip on this world that he had is being broken. Things are fading around him.

“I know it’s silly,” Gloria says. “In films we never see the happy ending. The hero and heroine kiss and true love is declared and what-not, and then the credits roll and we’re just left with our imaginations.”

“True,” Gold says. “And if you think about it, nine times out of ten when they make a sequel that does show us the happy ending, it’s nowhere near as good as the original.”

“It’s not going to be completely happy all the time,” Gloria agrees. “And I wouldn’t want to have this moment ruined by the realities of life. Best to just let the credits roll and use our imaginations.”

Gold nods. “I agree entirely.”

He looks back over his shoulder towards Belle and Nicholas.

“Goodbye, sweetheart,” he murmurs. “I love you so much, but now it’s time to go. So you go on and have your happy ending after the credits roll.”

There’s silence for a long time, and he feels himself fading, detaching from the world. He looks around himself, at the world he used to be a part of but that now feels so very alien and far away, and at Gloria still beside him.

“Now what do we do?”

X

They’re fading, Gloria can tell. Whilst she never had any idea what would come next after Nicholas had moved on and she by proxy also moved on, and she never had any desire to know, she knows that this is it, that she’s finally leaving this world behind for good. Aside from feeling a little cheated out of a happy ending, she’s pleased to be going. There’s nothing more that this world can do for her or she for it. All the same, she can’t help wondering what happens now.

“I think we just keep moving,” she says to Gold. “We just keep moving forward.”

Right now she can’t tell if the she’s fading out of the world or if the world is fading out around her. Everything feels more indistinct. Turning to glance over her shoulder, she sees Belle and Nicholas still standing together outside the apartment building, and she smiles. Enough now. No more thinking of the past and the future she has no part in. Time to think about her own future.

“Right.” Gold sounds somewhat unsure. “We just… keep walking into the light, that kind of thing? I thought you weren’t supposed to go towards the light?”

“That’s if you’re not already dead,” Gloria points out. “I think it’s a bit late for us not to go towards the light.” She pauses. “What light?”

“This light.”

Gold indicates the path ahead of them. Gloria will admit that she had been expecting some kind of glowing portal, but really it just looks more like a gentle sunrise which might be why she hadn’t really noticed it, even though logically she knows that it’s nowhere near sunrise time. The thought reassures her, that this is going to be a nice natural transition, nothing sudden or frightening.

Gold stops in his tracks and turns to her.

“Well, I guess that this is goodbye, Gloria. It’s been an honour to get to know you and work with you.”

Gloria nods. “Likewise, Rum.” She looks towards the dawn as it continues to creep. “Although, it does look like we’re going in the same direction. This doesn’t necessarily need to mean goodbye.”

“True,” Gold concedes. “And I think I’d feel far less trepidation about taking that step into the unknown with a friend by my side. I… I can consider you a friend, can’t I?”

Gloria nods. “Yes, you can.” She indicates the approaching dawn. “Shall we, Mr Gold?”

“I’d be delighted, Mrs Rush.”

Gold offers her his arm like an old-fashioned gentleman and Gloria laughs as she takes it and they move on confidently into the unknown.