"Say 'Pa-pa,'" Rumple coaxed. He crouched on the living room floor and dangled a whittled wand in front of nine-month old Gideon.
Gripping the edge of the coffee table with one hand, Gideon sidestepped toward his papa with one arm outstretched. Their little man was growing fast, and in a matter of weeks, he would be walking unassisted.
His eyes widened in delight when Rumple rotated the wand in a small, teasing circle.
"Come on…just two little syllables." He paused until Gideon' gaze was focused on his mouth, then enunciated the oh-so-important word slowly: "'Pa-pa.'"
"Mama!" Gideon chortled and snatched the wand from Rumple's grip, waving it over his head.
"Please, son? Papa? How about just Pa?" He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Your big brother used to call me Pop sometimes."
But the boy only batted huge, Belle-shaped eyes framed by thick lashes and giggled. His little nose was round and perfect like his mother's, and his thick, curly hair boasted a distinctive auburn sheen. At least his eyes are brown, Rumple thought.
Gideon let go of the coffee table, dropping back to sit on his well-padded bottom. With a glad cry, he shoved the tip of the wand into his mouth, rubbing it against his thick, wet gums.
"We don't eat our wand, Gideon," Gold chided, guiding the chiseled wooden stick away from his drooling mouth. The surface of the wand was already dotted with pointy little teeth marks and the baby's blue bib, tattooed with the phrase Future Bookworm, was soaked through.
Gideon laughed and swiped at the wand again. "Me."
"Not until you say 'Papa.'" He furrowed his brow in mock sternness.
"Rumple?" Belle poked her head around the corner from the kitchen, wooden spatula in hand. "Are you trying to bribe our son with magic?"
"Of course not. That would be ridiculous."
Belle tilted her head in the way she did when she didn't believe a word he was saying, and waited.
"All right. Yes." He pursed his lips. "He says so many other words. 'Mama,' 'book,' 'me,' 'cookie.' Once, just once, I wanted to hear him say 'Papa.'"
Belle's rounded the corner, her eyes growing large as saucers. "Is that one of the wands from the shop?" she squeaked.
"What?" He blinked at her. "It's only apple wood."
"And?" A lock of hair escaped the wispy bun pinned against her neck, her preferred hairstyle since Gideon liked to pull and nibble on his mother's hair. The shining strands fells forward over her eyes, and Belle tucked them behind her ear.
Stalling, he admired the graceful line of her neck. "You look so beautiful, sweetheart."
"Very smooth. You were saying?"
"Apple wands…the person who wields one is well-loved and long-lived. And, apple wood doesn't mix well with Dark Magic, so it's not dangerous." He sent her a winning grin, flashing his gold tooth.
"Ummel!" Gideon repeated, flinging the wand across the room. It slid across the floor and landed at Belle's feet. Gideon picked up a board book and waved it in the air. "Ummel!" he yelled again.
"See?" Belle waved at their son, her eyes shining with love. "He's saying your name. He's such a sweet angel baby!"
"He's repeating you," Rumple groused. "It's not the same. Everything is Mama. He goes to the library every day, with Mama. He always has a book in his hands, like Mama. His favorite fruit is bananas, like Mama. I'll bet he even finds the smell of books soothing."
"What? I know it's been several months, but do you not remember what our adult son looks like? Or, will look like? Fast-forward twenty-eight years and he's your mini-me!" She poked a light finger at his chest. "Your mannerisms, your love of tinkering. He even dresses in black."
He crossed his arms in sheer stubbornness. "Maybe he won't look the same this time around."
As soon as the words came out, he winced at his plaintive tone. He sounded stupid and selfish and lame. Oh gods, he sounded lame.
"Rumple, don't be upset. I talk about you all the time to him, you know," Belle walked around the room picking up toys and stacking them into piles. "When we're at the library, he sits in his pack-and-play with his toys, and while I catalog books, we talk about his Papa. He listens to everything, so wide-eyed and attentive. We even made up a song together. And it's all about you."
He lifted an eyebrow. "What's the song?"
"Sparkly Rumple Had A Castle," she said, beaming.
He covered his laughter with a cough.
Belle dropped an armful of toys into the wooden crate beneath the window. "Wait, where's Gideon?" Belle asked, scanning the living room floor.
"He was here a moment ago."
Quickly, they searched the downstairs, crawling behind couches and chairs and ducking into corners, but their wily son was nowhere to be found.
Together they skidded into the hallway and turned toward the stairs. A trail of board books littered the landing, and Gideon's little blanket was halfway up the staircase.
Belle pressed her lips together, suppressing a smile. "Why that little rascal."
"When did he learn to climb stairs?" Rumple shook his head as they trudged up the stairwell. "Next he'll be pulling curtains down."
Belle sent her elbow into his ribs.
"He carries this gold blanket you made him everywhere." Belle stooped to pick up the soft square. "What other child in town can boast about having a one-of-a-kind blanket spun by hand on an ancient spinning wheel by a magical imp?"
He shrugged as they walked from room-to-room, looking under the beds and opening closet doors. "I suppose."
Finally, they searched the master suite, drawn toward the closet by the sound of breathy giggles.
Gideon was on Rumple's side of the massive walk-in that doubled as a dressing room. All the drawers had been yanked out, and an explosion of colorful handkerchiefs and pocket squares dotted the floor like confetti.
Their son was clinging to a pair of suit pants, chewing the hem. A paisley pocket square was tucked into the top of his diaper, and three sleeve garters dangled from his wrist. At least the neckties were out of reach.
"What did I tell you?" Belle gestured at the mess. "It's mini-me."
"There's my boy," Rumple said, hoisting Gideon onto his hip and dancing around the closet. "Should we make a suit for Papa's little gentleman?"
"Pa-pa," Gideon repeated solemnly. He patted Rumple's cheeks, then nuzzled his shoulder with a contented sigh.
Rumple choked back tears. "He said it, Belle. He said Papa."
"See?" Her eyes sparkled with pleasure. "Sometimes as soon as we let go, people surprise us. Even babies."
"Papa! Papa! Papa!" Gideon babbled his new word again and again, spurred on by the proud reactions of his parents.
"And so it begins." Belle teased. "Come along, boys. It's almost time for dinner."
He sniffed the air, straining for a whiff of what was cooking. "What are we having?"
Rumple grinned. "Hamburgers."
Belle kissed Gideon's rosy cheek. "Yep. Extra ketchup."