Hi everyone! I'm finally back with a new chapter. Sorry for my long writing hiatus on this fic. Simply put, real life needed all of my attention and it left me drained and with no time to write at all. As of right now, I have half of the next chapter finished, so you don't have to worry - I won't leave you hanging for months like last time.
Thank you again for everyone who left reviews and PM'ed me about this fic while I was gone. It kept me motivated knowing that there were people who were still interested in it too. It's a lot of fun to write, so it's always great to hear that you're enjoying it as well.
Finally, I have to give a HUGE thank you to my beta, Luthien, who helped me out so much by going over this chapter for me! L, you're the best!
"PAPA! Papa, help me!"
"Let him go. We had a deal."
"We had a deal, which you broke when you refused to tell me what I wanted to know."
"I told you everything!"
"Everything? Really? I have to say, Gold, for your reputation, and for all of the trouble you've caused me, I expected so much more. It's all so very...disappointing."
"I've told you everything I know! Everything. Keep me here if you don't believe me, but let him go. He's not a part of this."
"He's your son—that's reason enough."
"You agreed to let him go. We had a deal."
"And you broke it. Voz'mite yego."
Gold flinched at Belle's voice, and tore himself from the memory. "Wha…what?"
"Are you all right?"
"Yes." He nodded, noticing that she had his hand caught in a vice grip.
"Okay," she said, relaxing her hand, albeit only slightly, at his glance. "Are you sure, then?"
"Yes," he said, coughing into his hand in an attempt to stifle his shaking voice. "Yes, I'm fine."
Belle frowned in obvious confusion. "Ah, I'm glad...but are you sure?"
"Yes, Belle, I'm sure." How many times do I have to say it? "I'm fine."
"No. Are you sure about her?"
"I asked you if you were sure that it's her—the Red Queen?" she asked, nodding towards his discarded headphones.
Oh. Right, Gold thought, feeling foolish. "I need to hear it again."
Belle nodded and rolled her chair over to the monitor, tracking the recording back to the beginning. It only took a second before the voice that had haunted his thoughts for the last eight years echoed throughout the room once again.
No, he thought, listening to their conversation again, it can't be this simple. We're missing something. He had searched for years for a mere mention of Koroleva; scheming, baiting, and bribing anyone he could so he could find her. And then, this? Consorting with Haak of all people? There had be some sort of mistake, or trap.
The short conversation ended, and Belle clicked it off, looking to him in question.
Gold ignored her pointed glance, and reached over her, rewinding the recording to the beginning again.
"Wait," he said sharply, holding up his hand as he pressed "play" again. He had to hear it again. He had to be sure.
As before, their short conversation, regarding their apparent plan, ended and transitioned into Haak yelling at his subordinate. Gold remained still, thinking, as Belle reached over and stopped it again.
It was her. He knew it in every fiber of his being, and yet the sheer luck of them finding her now, of all times? Something had to be wrong. It couldn't be this easy. Koroleva would not allow herself to make a mistake of this caliber. It had to be a trap.
"It's okay if you're not sure," Belle said, interrupting his thoughts. "We can always—"
"I'm sure," he snapped, causing her to flinch. "I'm sure," he repeated in a quieter voice. "It's just…" He shook his head, and pressed play again, wanting to hear the conversation from the beginning again. I'm missing something.
Belle reached over and touched his arm. "Hey, Aiden…look at me."
He sighed, allowing her to stop the recording, and glanced over.
"How about we take a break?"
Gold blinked, not sure if he heard her correctly. "What?"
"There's nothing we can do until we get a tracking or a voice recognition scan," Belle said, taking his hand. "How about we go get something to eat, and then—"
Gold jerked his hand away. "Get something to eat? My first solid lead in eight years, and you want to go have a fucking sandwich?!" He shook his head in disgust. Koroleva was already five steps ahead of them, likely planning how to kill them again, and Belle wanted to take a break? What the fuck.
Belle closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Jefferson?"
"Yes?" Her asset bounded up off the bed behind her, and rushed over. "What is it, Bonnet? What would you like me to do?"
Belle frowned. "I thought that you were sleeping?"
"Uh, yes. Well I was sleeping, but then I woke up, and I didn't want to interrupt you, so I just lay there, and then I was—" He cut himself off, and cringed. "I'm sorry."
"It's fine," Belle said, waving his concern off. "We need your help."
"No, we don't."
Belle flashed Gold a pointed glare, which he met with one of his own. "Yes. We do," she said, turning back to Jefferson.
"No," Gold snapped back, "I can handle it." The whole notion of asking for this idiot's help was simply ridiculous, not to mention a waste of precious time. He wasn't about to let some daft trust fund idiot fuck this up; not after everything he had been through.
Not willing to wait, Gold turned back around towards the monitor and cued up the audio again.
"Ignore him," Belle said to Jefferson, talking over the recording. "This woman's voice—we need you to do a voice recognition scan and run it through the rest of the recordings to see if there's another match. Can you do that here?"
"Can Robert Cailliau make a web page?"
"I mean, yes. Yes, of course, I can," Jefferson said quickly.
"Okay. Well in that case, what's your hacking ability to the CIA's server from here?"
"I'm sensing a challenge."
Gold spun back around at him. "This isn't a fucking game, Mr. Harrison."
Jefferson jumped back, and looked to Belle for help, his excitement replaced by something more akin to sheer terror.
"Can you do it?" she asked.
It took Gold a moment to realize that Belle was addressing him and not Jefferson. "Do what?" he asked.
She tipped her head towards the monitors. "Hack into Langley without detection?"
No, Gold thought, remaining silent. In the past, if he had needed any information that could only be acquired through "unconventional" means, he had always contracted hackers through third-party contacts, so he would never be tied into whatever he was looking into.
More so, as much as he loathed admitting it, he knew that he was far too out of practice to attempt an assault of this difficulty and importance. His skill had always lain in code-breaking anyway; what Belle was asking was admittedly out of his purview.
Belle's eyebrow lifted in challenge to his silence, holding his eye for a long moment before turning away. "I need you to hack into the CIA's database for the SOC and SAD and make clones of them," she said, addressing Jefferson again. "The one that I need first is the SOC's. It's a cloud-networking server called ARTHUR. It's not the one that the SAD or Langley uses—it's for our uses only, because it has a database of our legends and high-level targets. It should be hidden within the SAD interface though, through a backdoor. I'm assuming that you've spent some time poking around in there before?" Belle asked, waiting a beat for her asset to confirm her assumption. "Good. That will at least eliminate the tracking time. Do you think you can do that?"
"I've never heard of ARTHUR, but unless they've hired someone better than me to encrypt the networking, which is highly improbable, because the last time I was in there they were still using beta code for their 2013 upgrade, which is a joke, considering all of the—"
"Jefferson!" Belle yelled.
"Sorry," he said, his body snapping to attention.
"I need you to focus."
Jefferson nodded, giving a little salute from his brow. "Completely, one-hundred percent focused."
Oh fuck me. Gold groaned and wiped his face with this hand, not believing that this was happening. Eight years and his best shot at tracking down Koroleva was this hyperactive wannabe "Q." They would have better odds walking straight into the SVR's Center and asking for Koroleva from the Director Fradkov himself.
"Okay," Belle said, sounding as wary as Gold felt. "Well, in the meantime, while that's running, can you trace this phone call through the IP address that Haak uses? I'm assuming that the Red Queen used a drop phone, but can see if you can—?"
"She's not going to leave a trace."
Belle shot Gold an exasperated look, before turning back to her asset again. "See what you can do—if you can get any sort of lead of where the call might have been placed, it will be a huge help. I need you to also run a trace through Haak's computer and see if he has made any large transactions to any third-party accounts, or if there are any mentions of the word 'Malus' in any of his communications. It's probably not likely, but we have to try." She stopped and looked back at Gold. "Am I forgetting anything?"
His mind twitched, whirling with what else to scan for. Belle had admittedly covered most of the bases, but he still wanted to listen to the recording again to see if he missed anything.
Swiveling his chair back towards the computers, he put on the headphones, holding up a finger when Belle began to protest, and closed his eyes, trying to focus on the background noise.
Gold's eyes snapped open at Bae's voice, and he took off the headphones at once. Dammit! He sighed, rubbing a hand over his face.
"Hey," Belle said quietly, stilling his thoughts with a slight touch of her hand. "Let's take a break. Let Jefferson start on this."
"There might be something in the background. A sound, something we missed," Gold said. Oftentimes, it wasn't the conversation, but the background noise that told the most about a target. A train, bus, or any random passerby talking could often provide clues to where the conversation took place.
"Jefferson? Can you scrub that?" Belle asked, spinning in her chair.
Jefferson's face brightened at once, and he flexed his fingers. "Can…I...scrub that?" he scoffed. "Here, let me." He pulled up a chair, giving it a twirl, before sliding in between them.
Gold had to push back slightly to give the man room. The recording skipped and echoed in broken bursts, as he watched Jefferson's fingers fly across the keys, barely pausing so he could click his mouse.
"Oh, Mommy," he cackled in a strange accent, "I am about to make life so difficult for you."
"'Mommy'?" Belle asked, raising an eyebrow. Gold had the same question.
Jefferson paused for a moment, his fingers hovering over the keys, and looked at them in confusion. "Raoul Silva," he said. When they didn't reply, he sighed in disgust. "Haven't you seen Skyfall?"
"What is that?" Gold asked.
Jefferson groaned, tipping his head back dramatically. "What is that? What—? It's only one of the best Bond movies ever! I mean, maybe you can argue Goldfinger, or Casino Royale…or maybe even From Russia with Love beats it." He stopped, holding up his hand. "Take that back—it definitely beats From Russia with Love, but—"
"The scan?" Belle said, pointing towards the completed bar on the screen.
"Oh, yes. Right. Let's see what we have," he said, swinging back towards the computer.
Gold watched the man narrow his eyes, and then click through several screens, arriving finally on a rainbow hued histogram bar, set against a black screen. Each bar was delineated with several colored lines with white time markers breaking up the histogram in even segments.
Jefferson plugged in the headphones, and scrolled the bar forward. He frowned, quirking his lips to the side, and then scrolled through it again. He looked over his shoulder. "Can you get me that pair of headphones on my bed?"
Belle stood up first, beating Gold who had risen only halfway up out his chair, and returned a second later with Jefferson's laughably large set of headphones, which looked like they belonged more in a futuristic fighter jet than in a computer lab.
"Custom Sennheiser," Jefferson explained proudly, plugging in the pair. "Have the only five in existence." Once on, the black and silver-plated headphones covered up the entire sides of his head, from his hairline to the bottom of his jaw. "Let's see now," he murmured, cueing up the recording again.
Gold watched, wanting nothing more than to listen to the recording himself, but held back and let the man do his job. The asset clicked through several more menus and screens, until he pushed back, taking off his headset, handing it to Gold.
"See what you think. Sounds like a market."
Intrigued, Gold put on the headphones, surprised by how comfortable they were. Jefferson leaned forward, holding up a finger as he scrolled back to the beginning. A deafening chorus of loud sounds and people talking blasted through the headphones.
Christ! Gold yanked off the pair at once. "Can you turn the volume down?"
"Oh, yes. Sorry."
Jefferson gave him a "thumbs up" and Gold put the headphones on again, closing his eyes to focus, trying to recognize anything—anything—familiar. He could feel Belle's eyes on him, waiting for his answer, but he ignored her gaze, tuning her out as he immersed himself in the tape.
The sounds were barely decipherable on the first pass, except for the distinct honk of a car, or possibly a bus, blaring in the distance.
So she was outside? Interesting, he thought, considering the conversation, but then, it was an admittedly smart choice. Walls listened. Cars listened. Ironically, talking within a crowd, especially while walking, dramatically minimized the risk of someone listening in.
He scrolled back again, hoping to catch a snatch of a passing conversation, but it was too muddled to make anything out. Frustrated, he took off the headset.
"Can you hear anything?" Belle asked.
"She's outside," Gold said, shrugging. "There's a bus honking; people talking—"
"Can you tell what language they're speaking?"
He shook his head. "Too mumbled."
"Damn," Belle sighed. "How clear was the bus honk?"
"Huh." Belle tipped her head, and bit the side of her lip.
"What are you thinking?"
"I don't know if it could work, but we could try and get a MASINT trace on the sound to try and track down the make. It might help narrow the city down."
"Now we're talking!" Jefferson said happily, pushing his chair back in between them.
"No, wait—" Belle said, holding out a hand. "Get the trace done first. If we get a hit on that, then I might have a better idea of whose system to target. It's a long shot either way anyways."
"Whose system to target?" Gold asked.
"For the MASINT," she said. Belle flashed him a curious look. "What?" she asked innocently, shrugging. "We're just borrowing. There's no harm in it—you don't have to worry. I've done it before."
"Oh, I certainly know that." He couldn't help but laugh, being a first hand victim of her "borrowing." He had no doubt that he was only one in a long line of people who had fallen victim to Belle's talents throughout the years.
"Why are you laughing?"
"Oh, nothing...only thinking that you certainly don't have to remind me of your ability, darling. I'm well aware of your talent of 'borrowing' from others."
Belle blinked, and then bit her lip in embarrassment a moment later as understanding dawned on her face, her cheeks turning a bright shade of red.
Jefferson looked between them and laughed as well, stopping suddenly. "Eh…I don't get it."
Gold snorted. "Well, I certainly wouldn't call it nothing."
"I offered to give it back," Belle protested.
"That you did," he agreed.
"Do you want it back?"
He waited a beat, already knowing the answer. "No."
"Well, okay, then." She smiled back, and holding his gaze for a long moment.
"Okay, then," he repeated softly.
"Okay…then?" Jefferson repeated, looking between the two of them in confusion.
Belle smiled at her asset and stood up. "We'll get out of your way, Jefferson. Let us know if anything comes up; we'll just be upstairs."
Jefferson returned her smile. "Sure thing. I'll get on it right away, Bonnet," he said, flexing his fingers as proof.
Gold had barely enough time to get out of Jefferson's way before he pushed off from the desk, wheeling across the room to a large set of touch screen monitors set up on a glass panel by the wall.
With a quick tap of his fingers, a series of windows opened, each with innumerable lines of coding on them. The man made a little sound, which frighteningly sounded like, "da dadda da," and then whirled around, grabbing a pad of paper, before walking over to another grouping of monitors on the opposite side of the room.
"Care to join me?" Belle asked Gold, touching his arm.
He wanted to say no, since he was still not comfortable letting go of this lead to Jefferson, but before he could respond, Belle was already grabbing his cane, deciding for him.
"You find anything—anything at all—you come get us immediately. All right, Jefferson?" she called out.
Jefferson sprang around. "Of course!"
"All right," Belle said.
"Mr. Harrison?" Gold called out, not able to let this go so easily. "This woman…" He paused. "Please exercise extreme caution when you are doing this. It's very important that—"
"She doesn't track us, or know that I am trying to find her. I know. I promise—I won't let you down, Agent Gold," Jefferson said, as serious as Gold had ever heard him.
The man beamed at the thanks, and then returned back to his work.
"He's good," Belle murmured beside him, handing Gold his cane.
Gold could only hope. The only solace he could take was that the man had at least calmed down enough to give him a serious answer. He also couldn't discredit Jefferson's help in keeping them safe to this point, which considering whom they were up against was a fairly big accomplishment. Plus, the man did have excellent taste in weaponry. No one who had invented a dual-action blade could be a complete fuck-up.
But, then again, maybe if I listened to it one more time...
"Aiden?" Belle whispered.
He looked back around; a look of concern was on Belle's face once again.
She tilted her head towards the door. "Let's go."
"All right," he agreed, allowing her to pull him towards the stairs.
The light in the narrow hallway, leading up to the main floor, transitioned from the pleasant blue hue of the lab to a bright, nearly blinding white light, which reflected harshly off the smooth teak walls.
Gold's eyes watered at the brightness, unused to such light after working in the lab for so long. Half blind, he followed Belle through the house, turning down another corridor, curious as to where she was going. Once he saw, he nearly laughed aloud when he realized that she had been indeed quite serious when she had said that they were going to eat.
With his knee throbbing rhythmically in pain, Gold sat down at the kitchen's large island counter and extended his leg out, grimacing as he did so. The faulty joint hadn't felt right ever since the guard had kicked it on Haak's yacht. Not that he had admitted any of this to Belle—if he did, she would have him legged up for a week and he couldn't afford that. Not now.
No, as much as he loathed admitting it, he suspected that most of the problem likely lay in the fact that he was simply getting too fucking old for this anymore. Andhe was most certainly not ever mentioning that to Belle—his years on her were too painfully obvious for him already.
"Pancakes okay?" Belle asked over her shoulder, snapping his attention back to her.
"That'd be lovely."
His answer brought a smile to her face. "I know that it's not much, but it seems safe enough. I don't know when any of this has been restocked. It looks like he's been living off Grey Goose and Top Ramen alone, not that I should be surprised, I suppose." She stood up on her tiptoes, and grabbed another nondescript box off the shelf, holding it up for proper inspection. She grimaced and put it in the trash bin immediately. "Yeah, we're definitely going have to see about getting some real food, if we're going to stay here for any amount of time. Or some proper tea to drink, at the very least."
"I have no objections to that."
Belle flashed him a wide smile over her shoulder. "I had a feeling you wouldn't," she said, turning back to go up on her toes again, trying to reach for a mixing bowl on the top shelf.
"Here," he said, easing off the stool. "Let me—"
"No, no," Belle said, holding up a hand. "I got it. It's my turn to take care of you for a change."
"Who said that I needed to get taken care of?" he teased back, not understanding her need to take care of his sorry self at all, and yet finding himself unable to stop the hopeful pang in his chest nevertheless.
"I do," she said matter-of-factly, snatching the bowl down with a satisfied grunt, along with a measuring cup from the lower shelf.
Bringing the items to the center island, Belle whipped up the ingredients and got a thick batter made in a matter of minutes. With her task finished, she returned back to the large stovetop and began pouring the mixture onto the large iron skillet she had set out.
All the while, Gold watched her quietly; unable to stop his cynical mind from wondering how much longer all of this would last. He knew that didn't deserve her—hell, he had just yelled at her for no reason downstairs—and yet, she was still here, still patiently putting up with him. He knew that it was only a matter of time before one day, most likely soon, she would realize whom she had paired herself with and would leave, or worse, would be taken away by someone else that did.
"Hey," Belle said, looking up at him. "You sure you're okay?"
He tried and failed to say "yes," the words dying on his lips; instead, he settled for a nod, which he knew at once didn't work.
Belle put her baking aside, and rounded the island, wrapping her arms around his neck, and pulling him to her in a firm embrace.
Gold closed his eyes at her touch, and tucked his head into the curve of her neck, breathing in the faint scent of her shampoo still lingering in her hair. He sighed, feeling her hands rub his back, and allowed himself to forget his worries for just for a moment and enjoy being in her arms.
"You had me worried in there for a little bit—" she murmured.
"It's okay. It's happened to me too. It's not a big deal. I'll handle the recordings if you want me to. I don't mind. Don't force yourself to—"
"I'm fine, Belle," he said, pulling away.
She let him go, allowing him to back up. "Aiden, please don't put yourself through hell, just for the sake of punishing yourself."
"Yes, you are," she said firmly, cutting him off. "And you need to stop. No one deserves to go through that."
She took a step forward, back into his space, and tucked a stray hair behind his ear. "Please let me help you. You're not alone in this anymore. I'm here. I can help if you let me," she whispered with a smile.
Gold nodded back, unable to say that having Belle with him was the most terrifying thought of all. Because if Belle was his, then she was also his to lose as well.
"You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to," she continued, resting her hands on his waist, "but I'm not going to stand by and watch you try to become a martyr either." He watched her take his old, calloused hand into her own. "Okay?" she asked quietly.
He nodded, and gave her hand a weak squeeze, still not trusting his voice.
"Okay," she repeated, stroking his hand in return before she leaned in and kissed him softly.
A burning smell caused both of them to pull back. Gold glanced over, seeing smoke rise up from the burning pancakes that Belle had left to cook.
"Oh shit!" she cursed, running around to the burner. She grabbed a nearby pan holder, and then rushed the ruined pancakes over to the sink, throwing the water on the skillet. A huge cloud of steam rose up at once, masking her from Gold for a brief moment.
Belle laughed and coughed as she tried to wave the lingering smoke away. "Good job, Belle. Just burn the entire house down with a couple of pancakes! Geez." She coughed again, while she waved away the smoke. "Would you mind making sure that screen is open?"
"Of course," Gold said with a nod, getting up at once to walk over to the wide-double doors. The entire house was built with these sliding panels, which allowed the rooms to either be completely open to the outside, or sealed tight with a mere switch or voice command.
He pressed the button, not understanding how the voice command worked quite yet, and the doors to the adjoining living and dining room opened at once. A pleasant breeze flowed into the room, rustling his hair as he turned to walk back into the kitchen.
"Thank you," Belle said, pouring more batter into a new pan. "I think I have enough for another batch. You can eat those. They're good," she said, gesturing towards the three stacked on a plate in front of her.
"I'll wait for you, m'dear."
"But, they'll get cold."
"I'd still prefer to eat them with you. It makes them taste better"
"Oh, brother!" Belle laughed, rolling her eyes as she flipped the pancakes over. It only took another couple of minutes for her to finish her own, and she plated them quickly, grabbing two glasses of water as well. "Want to sit outside?" she asked.
"Sure," he agreed, following her out to the expansive patio area. It was a very lovely day, not to mention the surreal view that Jefferson's estate allowed them. Beyond the infinity pool lining the edge of the patio deck was a seamless drop off to the beach below. The whole patio area was in fact built above the sand to create an illusion of an endless ocean in front of them.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Belle said, settling herself beside him.
"Your asset does quite well for himself."
"That he does," Belle agreed. She held up a bottle. "Syrup?"
"Ah, yes. Thank you," he said, taking it from her.
"I must say, I do prefer your island much more though."
He raised a brow.
"What? I do," she said, smiling. She took the syrup back and put some on her own. "After all of this is done, may we go back there sometime?"
"If you wish."
"I would," she said, sneaking a shy glance at him, before she took another bite of her pancake. "I would like that very much."
Gold held back a laugh. He would gladly get on his one good knee, and beg for her to want to spend any time with him after all of this was done.
Before long, he finished eating all of his food, surprising himself as to how hungry he was. But then, he couldn't remember when he had eaten last.
He placed his empty plate on the stone table in front of him, and then he sat back, relaxing into the plush cushions. "That was wonderful, Belle," he said, trailing her fingers along her arm.
She beamed at the compliment, setting her own plate aside to curl up closer to him. "I'm glad you liked it."
"How could I not?"
Belle snickered and shook her head, rolling her eyes at him, but her smile only widened.
Charmed, he leaned over and kissed her softly on her lips, tasting the distinct sweetness of maple syrup. He lingered, kissing her again, and wrapped his arm around her, pulling her closer.
Belle gasped immediately and pulled away from his touch.
He froze, and then jerked his hand away, not believing that he had forgotten himself. "Oh fuck. I'm so sorry, Belle!"
"It's okay. That area is just a little sore still," she said reassuringly with a tight smile still marred with obvious pain, and readjusted herself so she sat sideways to him, placing his hand down towards the middle of her back where the road burns weren't as severe.
Yes. "Sore." He stopped himself from laughing at the absurdity of the statement. Most people would be crying out in pain, but Belle brushed off her wounds as if they were merely a scratch.
"Stop," she murmured, snuggling closer, swinging her legs over his own and taking his hand to pull her closer.
He hesitated, her flinch too fresh in his mind. "Belle, you're hurt."
"I know," she said with a chuckle, placing his hand firmly back on her side. "But despite what you believe, I happen to be a lot tougher than I look. You're not going to break me." She glanced up at him, raised her brow. "Or do I need to chase you halfway around the world again, to make you remember what I'm capable of?"
He didn't return her smile. No matter what she said—Belle was hurt because it was his fault. In the end, that was all he offered her—death and suffering.
"Hey…stop." Belle murmured, breaking him of his dark thoughts. She reached up and caressed his cheek, turning his head to face her. "None of that. I'll be fine. It will be okay."
He couldn't meet her gaze though and closed his eyes, letting out a long breath. "No, it won't."
"Why do you say that?" Belle asked softly. "You don't know that."
"Yes, I do." He opened his eyes and looked over at her. "Belle, you don't understand—"
"Then, tell me," she pleaded, lowering her hand. She swung her legs off of him and twisted around to face him fully. "Tell me what I don't understand; what's bothering you so. I'm not afraid of him—or her, for that matter—but, I don't want to go in there blind, just because you're trying to protect me. Tell me what we're really up against."
He opened his mouth to reply, but his protest died on his lips, and he dropped his head in resignation. His brave little Belle. He knew that she would try to take down Koroleva single-handedly if he let her. Hell, she had faced death head-on, no less that three times in the short time that he'd known her, and had never flinched once, not even when he had pulled the trigger himself—a memory that still haunted him. The only time she had ever faltered in her courage was when she was afraid for her father's safety.
People like her shouldn't exist, he thought, let alone place their trust in the likes of him, but he knew her well enough now to know that she wasn't going to let the issue drop. Taking a deep breath, he looked up her finally. "What do you want to know?"
Belle quirked her lip and frowned in thought. "Well, I suppose…well, why now?"
"Why now, what?"
"Why would the Red Queen risk exposing herself by getting involved with someone like Haak? He doesn't seem stable enough for anyone to partner with him on anything; she has to know that. Even if she's just using him as a floater, why risk exposing herself?"
He shrugged. "That m'dear is what I don't understand either. It doesn't make any sense."
"Have you heard of anyone ever seeing her, or having any contact with her?"
"Other than myself?" He shook his head. "No."
"How about when you heard about Malus? Were there any mentions of her when they talked about it?"
Gold sighed in frustration. "No. Thus the reason for why I played it the way I did. I baited Mills in the hopes that Koroleva would seek me out instead; that she wouldn't want her little mole exposed."
"Maybe she has."
"Has what?" he asked.
"Sought you out." Belle's hands fluttered as she sorted out her thoughts. "I mean…how often do you come in contact with Haak?"
"I've dealt with him a handful of times. Why do you ask?"
"Maybe her contact with Haak is a ruse to draw you out."
He thought about it for a second. "Clever idea, but I don't see her doing it here. I've been hearing whispers about Malus from two high-level contacts for over a year, both of whom I highly doubt have been in contact with her. She's been planning whatever this is for a while now."
"Then, maybe it's a canary trap for her assets? See if they're talking to anyone else?"
"These people don't talk," he said. "At any rate, she wouldn't involve Mills if that was what she was truly planning. Mills is too highly placed in the CIA to risk exposing her."
"So you think that it's an actual operation?"
He nodded. "I believe so."
Belle let out a heavy breath, and put a finger to her lips. "What have you learned about it?"
"Bits and pieces. The truth of it is that I stopped caring as soon as I knew Mills was involved." He shrugged, feeling slightly embarrassed at Belle's dismayed expression. Saying it aloud, especially after everything they had been through, made him sound downright foolish.
"After that," he continued, staring down at his lap, "it was simply planning when I would make my appearance known to her little lapdog."
"Glass," Belle grumbled.
He glanced up and tipped his head in agreement. "Mills, for all of her faults, isn't dumb. I knew that she would know what my reappearance would signify —a threat to her cover. Only, I had hoped that it would be she, or better yet, Koroleva herself that would have met me. Instead, two days after my photo op, there you were, chasing me through the streets of Rome."
Belle made a pained expression, shrugging apologetically. "Sorry."
He shook his head. "Sweetheart," he said, taking her hand. "You have nothing to apologize for."
A rosy blush came to her cheeks, and she smiled, squeezing his hand in return. "Still…I wasn't Koroleva or Mills."
"No," he agreed. "Unfortunately, not."
Belle frowned. "Why do you think that she didn't come after you directly after I failed?"
"How quickly you've forgotten our little welcome party on the island," Gold replied, lifting his brow in jest.
"Mills," she said, nodding.
"Without a doubt." He nodded in agreement. "Probably in Durban as well. That was her trying to fix her fuck up and kill both of us in the quickest way possible. I do find it interesting that Koroleva allowed Mills to use her people to eliminate us; I suppose that it lends credence to the fact that Malus is a real operation. I doubt that Koroleva would ever risk tying herself to Mills, even indirectly, if it wasn't for a important cause."
"It also means that they're slipping up. Maybe we'll get lucky and they'll do it again."
"Unfortunately, people like Koroleva are alive due to the very fact that she doesn't make errors like that hardly ever. She is a master at fluidity and patience in her planning. She won't allow herself to commit a mistake like that again."
Belle's face fell and she sighed, twisting back around on the couch so she could rest her head on his shoulder. "Sometimes, I really hate this job."
Gold chuckled, and bent down to kiss the top of her head. "Chasing whispers and shadows."
Belle hummed in agreement. "Well, hopefully, Jefferson finds something. Who knows? Maybe this really is what it appears to be—that she tripped up finally."
If only. He couldn't voice the same false hopes. He had endured too many missed opportunities to get his spirits lifted now. It was frustrating, playing with less than a full deck, especially in a game with as stakes as high as this. If it wasn't for Belle… He looked down and kissed her hair again. If it weren't for Belle, what he would do next wouldn't be a question.
"I meant what I said before," Belle said after a long moment, glancing back up at him. Gold raised his eyebrow, confused. "If you don't want to deal with the recordings, or her, any longer, just let me know. I'll handle it."
"I don't—it's fine. I'm fine with it," he corrected quickly.
"Okay." Belle's expression softened into one of concern, but she didn't press him further, simply nodding, and then settling herself back on his shoulder, rubbing her hand across his chest in a lazy caress. "Just know that I'm here if you need me."
As if he could forget. Belle was the best thing that had happened to him, except for his son, and it wasn't lost on him that they were now following the very person that could again take away the only other person that he had ever loved.
Gold sucked in a sharp breath at the realization, and felt his heart begin to pound at the thought. Loved. Not that he hadn't felt himself falling for her; truthfully, it had probably happened the moment he had met her, but the depth of the emotion, now that he had given it voice, was frightening.
"What?" Belle asked, looking up at him in alarm.
For a terrifying moment, he nearly confessed everything—his fears, his doubts, his love—but he pulled it back at the last second, not wanting to frighten her. He couldn't have her pull away from him. Not now. He depended too much on her. What they had felt much too fragile. For a slip of three words to break that was terrifying. "Nothing."
She tipped her head, frowning for a second, before she reached up and brushed a stray strand of hair out of his face, tucking it behind his ear. "You sure? You looked a million miles away for a moment there."
Belle gave him a long look. He nearly broke then, but he was saved by Belle's sigh of resignation and she settled back down next to him, threading her fingers through his.
An easy silence descended upon them with only the distant lapping waves and faint breeze to keep them company. Gold, though, couldn't relax. He couldn't stop thinking about Koroleva finding out about Belle.
He looked down, feeling her thumb stoke the back of his hand absentmindedly. He gave it a light, appreciative squeeze. "I need you to promise me something, Belle."
She glanced up at him, concerned. "What?"
"Promise me that if it comes down to…promise me that you won't risk yourself."
"Aiden—" she sighed.
"Promise me," he repeated again, more firmly. "I need you to..."
He trailed off, and looked down at their intertwined hands, as he tried to find the words. "I don't know what she's doing, Belle. I've looked for her for so long—so long—and for her to just…" He sighed, glancing up again. "The last time I got close to her, this close, I lost Bae. Please…just promise me that you won't—"
"Hey," she whispered, reaching over to touch his arm. "You're not going to lose me."
"All right. I'll promise, but only if you do the same," she said, looking directly at him, holding his gaze. "I can't lose you either, Aiden."
His heart clenched painfully at her words. Deep seeded fears rose up at once, making him nearly nauseous with their intensity. She believed in him and for some unknown reason continued to stand by him as no one else ever had, and…Christ, he didn't know why. All he knew was that he didn't deserve any of it. She didn't deserve to be loved by a monster such as he.
He let out a deep, shuddering breath and glanced up, sensing that she was still waiting for his answer. "Belle…" he started, finding that he had no other words.
Thankfully, Belle rescued him from his own ineptitude, reaching up and cupping the side of his face, smoothing back the stray hairs with her fingers. She smiled softly at him. "It's going to be okay," she whispered. "I promise."
He closed his eyes and nodded again, unable to voice her same confidence. Unlike Belle, he knew what he was going to have to do to stop Koroleva. Never in his wildest dreams when he had conceived his plans had he ever dreamt of having someone along with him, let alone someone like Belle.
If she finds out… He heart began to pound at the thought of what would happen then.
The soft touch of Belle's lips to his forehead, though, stopped his dark thoughts from spiraling downward further. He let out another long breath and allowed her to bring his face gently upwards, level with her own.
"Aiden," she whispered, capturing his lips in a gentle kiss. And then another. "It's going to be okay."
Gold sighed, feeling so very tired, and rested his forehead against hers. With each beat of his heart, he felt himself begin to relax in her embrace.
After a long moment, Belle pulled away, but only far enough so she could pull her legs up over his thighs and curl into his body once again, resting her head on his shoulder.
Gold wrapped his arm around her automatically. Belle made a little sound of contentment at the gesture and he felt her relax even more of her weight against him.
He smiled, glancing down at the beauty in his arms, and ran his hand along her arm, enjoying the feel of her soft tresses against his skin.
Before long, he felt himself begin to doze off as well—the combination of the pancakes and the stress too potent of a combination to resist—and closed his eyes.
Jesus Christ! Gold jumped and jerked his head around towards the noise. What the fuck is he up to now?
"Guys!" Jefferson cried out again, bursting through the doors a second later. The asset slid across the smooth wood paneled floors in front of them, nearly falling down as he stopped himself. "Oh," he said, gawking at their intertwined position.
Gold grumbled as Belle shifted off of him. "What is it, Mr. Harrison?"
"Oh, ah," Jefferson stammered, still staring at the two of them. "You're, ah…you're going to want to see this," he said, gesturing towards the inside.
Belle was up in an instant, handing Gold his cane. "What is it? Were you able to pick up a trace?"
"No, no, not that. This wasn't me. This was just there."
"What do mean that it was 'just there? What is there?" Gold barked.
"Your FTP client? There's um…there's a reply."
"What do you want to do?"
Gold sat back and twisted his hands on his cane's handle. They had read the small message that Haak had left on their FTP client nearly twenty times now, despite not learning anything more than when they had read it the first time. All the message said was for Belle to call Haak regarding a possible change in the terms of their agreement. And while Jefferson had been able to confirm that Haak had uploaded the small text file from his yacht, he hadn't been able to determine much else with his trace and cloning still incomplete.
"I don't know," he said, looking to Belle. Even though he knew that Belle was barely containing her excitement over the prospect of going another round with the man again, Gold wasn't nearly as eager. He'd prefer never involving her with that man again.
"If we did call him back," Belle said, turning towards Jefferson who was working on the opposite side of the room, "could you guarantee that he couldn't trace us in return?"
"Oh, definitely," Jefferson said. "Here, one moment." He jumped up and scurried up the stairs, returning a minute later with a small cell in his hand. "Secure drop phone. Not only does it mask your position, it has live tracking on the receiver's location."
"Is that how you were able to find us in Antigua?"
Jefferson bit his lip, and shrugged sheepishly at Belle. "Maybe."
"You're sure this will work though?" Gold asked, not caring about what Jefferson had done in the past, only that it would work now.
"Oh yes!" he said. "Here, I'll show you." He darted up the stairs again, returning a moment later with an armful of miscellaneous electronics and cords.
Well, no one is ever going to accuse him of being not prepared, Gold thought dryly, quirking his brow at Belle. She rolled her eyes, and tipped her head at him in warning.
"Okay, okay, look at this," Jefferson said. He handed Gold a phone, and then turned to Belle, giving her its twin. "Now, dial that number," he said to Belle, "and come over here."
Belle pressed the "send" button on her phone, and waited. A second later, Gold's phone rang, showing an unlisted phone number.
"All right, now answer that," he said, tipping his head towards Gold. Gold did as instructed. "Now look at this." He skipped over, sitting down in front of a dual screen flat screen monitor. He swiped his hand on the monitor, awakening it, and then clicked the mouse through several windows. "See?" he said, pointing to the small window with a series of rapidly scrolling numbers.
See what? "What am I looking at Mr. Harrison?"
"Well, this here," he explained, "is the ISP tracker. But, as you can see, what I've done is built this phone to emit its own signal, which, in effect, cancels out the real signal, while also placing a lock on the receiver's location. I based the design partly on the multistatic radar emitters used in stealth aircraft."
"You came up with this all on your own?" Belle asked.
Jefferson quirked his lip to the side. "Sort of."
"Well, I built it off of what people have done previously—theories and such," Jefferson said, glancing over his shoulder to answer Gold's question. "That's how I get started on most of my projects—I see an idea, and look to see what others have done with it, and then try to make it even more fantastic. DARPA shelved a similar project developing this technology for hand-held use last year. Basically, no one wants to make these, because they're too expensive for mass production."
"Impressive, Mr. Harrison," Gold said, truly meaning it.
Jefferson turned around, and beamed as if Gold had given him the ultimate compliment. "Well, um, I, uh…I thank you, Gold—I mean, Agent Gold...Sir."
"You're welcome. That is, only if you can get these to work."
"Of course, they work! I just showed you—"
Gold waved him off. "Easy there, Mr. Harrison. I believe you."
"Well, shall we do this then?" Belle asked, her tone betraying her excitement.
Gold looked over at her. She was shifting side to side on the balls of her feet, like a player about to enter a game. My Brave Belle… He let out a deep sigh and pointedly arched his eyebrow at her in "disapproval."
Belle stopped her movement at once, her features schooling instantly into a look of complete seriousness. "I mean…I think we should do it," she said carefully. "He's obviously most likely contacting us about Malus, and even if he isn't, I can still try to get him to admit some details about this investor meeting he talked about with her. And if he can't trace us—what's the harm in trying?" She shrugged. "What do you think?"
He nodded in agreement. "I think that it's a good plan," Gold said, unable to string her along for any longer. Belle's eyes lit up at his admission at once. He gave her a small smile, and then turned to Jefferson. "All right, Mr. Harrison, could you send a message back saying that we'll contact Haak at…" He stopped, looking to Belle.
Belle glanced over at the four digital clocks placed high on the wall, each with a different timezone. "Tell him 12:30. I want to go over my cover again, just so it's fresh in my mind."
Gold nodded in agreement. "Send him '12:30 GMT,' then, Mr. Harrison. Just the time only, please."
"Right away," Jefferson said, running over to the computer on the opposite side of the room.
"All right, he's all yours, sweetheart," Gold said, turning to Belle.
"Why, thank you," she replied sweetly, grinning like a shark.
Her look almost made Gold feel bad for Haak, but only for a moment.
True to their plan, Belle returned promptly an hour later, arriving a couple minutes before her call was supposed to take place with a thin stack of handwritten notes, which she placed on the desk next to Gold.
"Ready?" Gold asked, offering her a smile.
"As I will be."
Which, Gold knew, meant that she had memorized every detail of her identity-cover to cover.
Remembering how his previous attempts to help on the plane to Durban had resulted in nothing but her becoming irritated at him, he had left her alone for the past hour to study. Instead, he had spent the time watching Jefferson work on his trace, offering suggestions when the man had asked for them. It was frustrating, sitting by doing relatively nothing, but there wasn't anything that he could do.
"Are you ready, Jefferson?" Belle asked, walking back over by Gold. He pulled out the chair next to him for her, but she shook her head, preferring to stand. Already, she was wearing the same mask of steely confidence that she had displayed on Haak's boat. Looking at her now, even Gold was slightly intimidated by her.
"Yep," Jefferson said, walking across the room to them. "Here is the cell you'll use. We're hooked up here to record it, and listen in. You want to do it here, or—"
"Here's fine," Belle said, taking the phone.
"The number's all ready to be dialed. Just press 'send.'"
Gold rolled over to grab his headphones off a nearby table to listen in. "You have your plan?" They hadn't discussed what she was going to say—he had left it up to Belle, trusting that she knew how to handle this.
"Yep." Belle nodded confidently.
"If he becomes unstable—"
"I'll back off, but not a lot. I'm going to try and be fairly aggressive with him at first to put him off-guard. After that, I'll feel out where we are from there. Are you okay with that?"
"He's all yours. Do you worst," he said with a wink, putting on his noise canceling headphones.
"Planning on it," she said, flashing him a knowing grin, as she pushed the "send" button and put the tampered phone up to her ear; her serious demeanor returned immediately as the phone began to ring.
Ring. Ring. Click.
Gold glanced over at Belle to answer, but her mouth was set it in a straight line. He motioned for her to say something, but she turned away and walked towards a large school of fish that had congregated on the other side of the thick glass wall.
A tense silence drew out, making Gold twitchy. Neither party wanted to answer first, and it was clear by Belle's face that it was certainly not going to be her.
Haak seemed to sense this as well, and a moment later a light cough sounded on the line. "Ms. Schnact?"
"You have two minutes, James," Belle answered flatly, her tone devoid of the warmness that had been in it a moment before.
Gold grinned, feeling Haak's flinch of irritation over Belle's use of his first name.
"Ms. Schnact, I have—"
"Two minutes to explain yourself," she said, cutting him off abruptly, "or else I find someone else to kill those men. And then, after they're finished, I'll send them to kill you as well for backing out of our deal. Now, if you don't want that to happen, I suggest that you start talking. Quickly."
"I believe that you've misinterpreted my intentions, Ms. Schnact."
"No, I don't believe I misinterpreted anything. I made a deal with you for those two names in exchange for Pann. Now what part of that deal wasn't fucking clear enough to you?"
Haak chuckled. "Now, now, Ms. Schnact, there's no need to get heated about this. I'm coming to you with both of our best interests in mind."
"Our best interests? Is that right? Now tell me—how is not eliminating my targets in my best interest?"
"I never said that I wasn't going to eliminate your targets."
"Then, why contact me at all if our terms haven't changed?"
"Because, I think that I might have a more lucrative offer for you instead. How does ten million dollars sound to you?"
"Like ten million dollars," Belle deadpanned. "How does that have anything to do with eliminating my men?"
"Such a one-track mind you have, Ms. Schnact. I do remember you saying in our last meeting that you were in this for the money. Ten million dollars for Pann's location is a much more lucrative proposition, wouldn't you agree?"
"Not from where I'm sitting. I can make sort of money anywhere. Why the do you think that I contacted you in the first place? I contacted you to eliminate those men for me. That's what I want—not some half-assed bribe."
"This isn't a bribe," Haak scoffed.
"Then, what would you call it?"
"Payment in exchange for something I want."
Belle paused, and grinned to herself. "If that's the case, then I'll do it for a hundred."
"I'll give you Pann for a hundred million, in addition to you having those two names eliminated for me, no less."
"I don't believe that this is a negotiation, Ms. Schnact."
"It isn't? I thought that that was the very reason you asked me to call you—to renegotiate our terms? Well, I'm renegotiating—a hundred and the two men, or I'm hanging up."
"If you think that I'm going to give you a hundred million dollars, plus those two men—"
"No, I do think that," Belle said, cutting him off.
"I'm not giving you both."
"Well, then, I guess we're done here. Best of luck finding your lost boys, James."
Belle paused, smiling wolfishly to herself. "Yes, James?"
"I want Pann."
"I know that," Belle said. "The question is whether are you going to give me what I want in exchange for him."
She was answered by silence, which dragged out for a painfully long moment.
"Yes," he said finally. "But after making some inquiries into the two men you want eliminated, I've come to the conclusion that finding and killing these men will take longer than I am willing to wait. So in exchange for patience, I'll offer you an 'investment opportunity'—"
"Oh, so what you're saying is—you're not going to fulfill our original deal at all," Belle said, interrupting him. "I will tell you right now that one hundred million dollars is certainly not enough for me to overlook your lack of ability to kill those two men. Thanks, but no. I want those men eliminated."
"You will get your fucking targets eliminated!" he yelled back. "However, if you will let me finish," he said, his voice calming again, "…that will take time; too much time for me to wait. I've already waited too long to kill that little rat, and every second that I wait is another second that he runs free, ready to kill me. You told me when we last met that you are in this for the money, well, here is your opportunity, Ms. Schnact. I will still kill your two men. I agree that it would be bad form to agree to do so, and then not. However, I think that it will be in both of our best interests to pursue this other path, one that will allow us to both be compensated quickly, within the month."
"Within the month?" Belle repeated, looking over at Gold.
That piqued Gold's interest as well. He had never been able to confirm a timeline before. But a month? That seemed a little late to bring new players into the game, but then, viewed from another angle it could be a shrewd move.
She paused, as if considering his offer, but Gold knew that she was thinking the same thing as he. "Interesting," she said finally. "So you'll be wanting me to provide you with Pann's location after I have the money, but before you've dealt with my men."
"What guarantee do I have that you'll still take care of those two names after you have Pann's location?"
"My good form of course."
"Fuck your form," Belle spat, causing Gold to jerk his head up in turn. He tried to catch her eye, but she ignored him, turning away. "I had enough of your form when you held that snake to my throat," she continued. "So this is what's going to happen. You're going give me this money, and then I'll give you the location to Pann's group. However, I'm going to hold Pann himself until you deliver on your end of the bargain and kill my men."
"But that could take me months!"
"You think that I care? Look, James, if you can't deliver, just tell me and we'll part ways. I can find someone else."
"No," Haak said quickly, desperation betraying his tone.
"Well, agree to my terms then. You said yourself that the only reason you need to find him quickly is because of the threat the boy poses to you; once I get my money, that threat will be eliminated, and then once you deliver on your promise, you can have him to do whatever you want—stuff him next to your crocodile for all I care."
The line went silent for a long time. Gold cringed, hoping that she hadn't lost him. She was pushing Haak too far over a small detail that he knew they weren't going to deliver on anyways.
"Mr. Haak? Is that acceptable to you?" Belle asked
A long beat passed before Haak sighed, resigned, into the phone. "Yes."
Belle smiled. "I'm glad to hear that. All right, then, Mr. Haak, tell me about this 'investment opportunity."
"I'm not able to discuss the details of it over the phone, however I can tell you that any investment you make will have a guaranteed return of ten fold by the end of the month. I will spot you ten million dollars as payment for Pann's location, which will be a hundred once this deal is finished. Any more, you'll have to invest yourself. However, after you hear what is in store, I have a feeling that you will want to contribute."
"That sounds too good to be true."
"Some things in life are, Ms. Schnact. You simply need to know the right people to find them."
Belle rolled her eyes, and stalked over to a window, where a pair of tangs were passing by. "Spare me the bullshit, Haak. When do I get to hear the details about this plan of yours? I'll tell you right now that I won't agree to go forward with anything until I know what I'm getting into."
"I understand. That's why I'm holding an investors' meeting in Dubai next Saturday at the racetrack. There, you and the other select investors, will hear the details for the first time from my partner."
"Who is your partner?"
"That, I can't tell you."
"Then, who are the other investors?"
"That, I can't tell you, either."
"Mr. Haak," Belle said, "I will require a list of the people in that room."
"I'm afraid that I can't give that to you."
"Then, I'm afraid that I won't be agreeing to this deal."
"Names of the partners, or no deal," Belle said calmly.
Gold could sense the man's hesitation over the phone and worried for a moment that Belle was pressing him too hard once again. He was about to interject, when she repeated the question.
"Names of the partners, James, or no deal," she said, slipping once again into using his first name.
"I'll tell you what, Ms. Schnact. I'll allow you to look into the room before you enter. If you find anyone objectionable, then you can leave, and we'll stick to our original plan. Is that acceptable to you?"
Belle paused, and looked to Gold. He nodded in agreement. "It is. When's the meeting?"
"Fourth race on the World Cup Card. Suite 2389 in the main Meyden Grandstand. Come alone—your Agent Gold will not be welcomed in this meeting."
"May I ask why not?"
"It is a condition of my partner's—investors only."
"Very well," Belle said. "One last thing, though…"
Haak hesitated a beat before he took the bait. "Yes, Ms. Schnact?"
"Please know that if you are planning on killing, or torturing, myself, or any of my employees, in order to get Pann's location, it would be wise to put aside those plans now. I've made sure of that if any of us die, regardless of the circumstances, you'll never see that boy again. Or rather…you'll never see him while you're alive, that is."
"Why are you telling me this, Ms. Schnact?"
"Because after all of this, I'd hate for both of us to be disappointed."
Haak chuckled into the phone. "Ms. Schnact, I consider myself to be many things, but first and foremost, I pride myself on being a man with a code. I always maintain my good form in all my agreements, which means I will never break my word. I swear to you that your safety will not be in question at this meeting, or you may kill me yourself."
"Oh, you can be most assured of that, Mr. Haak. I'll see you in Dubai," she said, snapping the phone shut, ending the call abruptly.
Gold watched quietly as Belle closed her eyes and took a deep breath, nodding to herself. "Nicely done."
"Thank you." Belle smiled, turning to Jefferson. "Jefferson?"
"Yes, Bonnet?" her asset asked, swiveling around from the monitor that he was working intently on.
"Be sure to track whatever communications Haak has in or out of his vessel. See if that makes him call anyone."
Jefferson saluted her, and then spun back around, putting his comically large headphones back on.
Belle looked back at Gold. "What am I forgetting?"
"As you said, there's nothing more that can be done until your little friend over there completes his search. Until then—"
"I'm on it!" Jefferson called out, raising his hand.
Belle chuckled at the man. "All right." She paused a moment, and Gold watched as her cheerful expression turned sour, her brow narrowing into a frown.
"Was that too easy?"
Gold narrowed his eyes in confusion. "Was what too easy?"
"The call. Haak," she said, gesturing to the phone lying on the table. "He agreed to everything. Plus, he told me basically what he was planning with Malus, if that's indeed what the real plan is. Why would he do that?"
Gold thought for a moment, and then shook his head, offering her a smile. "Haak has never been known for his shrewd intellect, m'dear. I'd say you played him right into your hand quite impressively."
Belle didn't look convinced though. "You're sure?"
"I'm sure," he said, nodding again.
"I'm sure too, Bonnet!" Jefferson called out happily from across the room. "Not that…you know…what I say matters, but I thought you did a bang up job!"
Belle smirked, and smiled at the man. "Thank you, Jefferson." She turned back to Gold, lowering her voice. "I didn't overdo it with the threats?"
"No," Gold said, rising from his seat, and joined her next to the acrylic window. "You did well, Belle," he said softly. "Sometimes, it's just that easy, especially when the subject is faced with such a formidable opponent as Ms. Schnact."
She sighed, offering Gold another thin smile.
"Hey," Gold said, raising a hand to cup her cheek to make sure she looked at him. "You've got us a seat at the table, which is closer than I've ever been. That's a credit to you."
Belle smiled a little wider, and leaned into from his touch. "You're sure that wasn't too easy?"
"Sweetheart, I don't know what else you would like me to say. You did well. What doesn't feel right to you?" Gold asked, running his hand down her arm to cover her hand with his own.
"I don't know…" She shrugged. "Now that I think about it, it just…it felt like he was playing along, letting me lead him exactly where I wanted to go," she said.
"I have a feeling that he's most likely thinking the same thing about you right now," he said, half teasing her. "Listen to the recording. You'll see. I think that that man will do anything to finish his silly feud with that boy."
"I'm not giving him those boys," she said firmly. "I don't care what it comes down to. I'm not doing that."
"I know. The good news is that if his timeline is correct, it will never come to that anyways." He smiled, giving her hand a little squeeze. "You did well, Belle."
She looked into his eyes, searching for a flicker of a lie, which he knew wasn't there, until she gave up finally, her lips pulling into a smile. "Thank you."
He leaned forward, closing the small distance between them and placed a chaste kiss on her lips, ever conscious of Jefferson trying to feign disinterest a short distance away.
Belle lingered though, kissing him one more time, before pulling away. "I'm going to go upstairs; I need to go shoot something and work this off," she said, gesturing up and down at herself.
Gold chuckled and shook his head. No matter how beautiful or innocent she appeared, his Belle was still a true warrior to her core. He didn't know if he would ever get used to it, which was likely why she was so sought after by the Company in the first place. Anyone could be a skilled agent, but only the truly great NOCs were the ones that anyone would pass by and think that they were harmless.
"Do you want to come join?"
He hesitated for a moment, wanting to go, but then thought better of it. He needed to be here in case Jefferson found anything. "No. You go along. I'll stay here, and wait and see if he comes up with anything."
"You sure? I could be persuaded to do something else…if you had any better ideas in mind," she whispered into his ear, and then took his lobe in her mouth, gently raking her teeth along it.
"Mr. Harrison?" Gold called out, nearly choking on his words. "We'll be upstairs. Come get us if you find anything."
"Will do, Boss," Jefferson answered.
Belle laughed, and took Gold's hand, giving it a slight and unnecessary tug towards the stairs.
Target practice would have to wait.
As would they.
While it had taken Jefferson less than a day to hack into Langley undetected, it took him three more to be able to finish all of the tasks they had asked of him—cloning ARTHUR, tracing (albeit unsuccessfully) Haak's call with the Red Queen, and downloading all of Haak's personal files from the bot that Belle had placed on his computer.
Gold couldn't help but be impressed with the man's skill and tenacity in doing this; in fact, Belle's asset had worked for nearly two days straight nonstop without even pausing to rest, before they had been forced to slip him a sedative to make him sleep.
In the end, despite all of their best combined efforts, they had been unable to find any mention of where the Red Queen was, or discover any new information about Malus, or her, anywhere on Haak's system. The closest they got to unearthing any new actionable information on Malus was finding out two more "guests" that were going to be attending Haak's meeting in Dubai, but even that was not very helpful. Both of the men were minor criminals at best. Rich criminals to be sure, but not likely to present any realistic threat to Belle, or know who she was.
The thought that it would still only take one guest to blow Belle's cover, leaving her alone and without any backup, unnerved Gold to no end. It kept him up at night, feigning sleep, while he went over the options in his head—the most tempting of which was to go out and end this himself before Belle attended the meeting and got drawn into this even further. As much as she declared otherwise, Koroleva wasn't her problem; that was his burden and his alone, and he wasn't about to let her be harmed any further by that woman in trying to help him.
However, he knew that the odds of him pulling that plan off were slim to none. Not only would Belle no doubt find out, she would most likely inflict more damage on him than Koroleva ever could once she found out that he had lied to her.
No, in order for Belle's blacklist to be lifted, what he needed was a concrete tie to Mills, apart from his own worthless testimony, showing her for what she was. Without that, she had no chance of returning to a normal life, and she would be forever looking over her shoulder like him. He couldn't let that happen. He wouldn't allow it. That woman wasn't going to destroy the only other person that he loved.
If there was anything more terrifying than the fact that he had somehow changed his priorities for Belle, it was the realization that he loved her. Truly loved her. All he knew was that the universe had a fucking sick sense of humor to have this happen to him the moment he was closest to what he wanted to achieve, forcing him once again to see the person that he loved in the crossfire. It left him angry and frustrated, but mostly just flat out terrified of what could happen—of what he stood to lose once again. If he lost Belle too... His heart began to pound at the thought. He couldn't lose her.
But, she's still here, he reminded himself, trying to calm his racing heart.
He rolled over and reached across the large king-size bed, drawn by the need to hold Belle close to him, only to find a cold, empty space in place of Belle.
Gold's eyes snapped open, and he pushed himself up onto his arm. A surge of adrenaline rushed through him as he looked around the dark empty room. The only illumination was the glow of the bright red digits of the alarm clock on the nightstand beside him flashing 2:30.
He held his breath, listening for any sort of movement, but heard nothing except for the faint rumble of the air conditioner.
It's nothing, he reminded himself. She probably couldn't sleep with all your tossing and turning all night, and got up.
He waited a few minutes longer, and tried to will his heart to slow down, while he tried to come up with better explanations for where Belle was, reminding himself that no one even knew where they were.
Like how they didn't know where you were in Antigua?
Gold ripped off the covers, and swung his aching leg off the bed. Grabbing his cane, he hobbled over to the closed bathroom door.
"Belle?" he asked, knocking his knuckles on the wood twice.
When his question was met with silence once again, he opened the door and turned on the lights, illuminating the large space. He walked around the corner, ducking his head into each of the adjacent his-and-hers dressing rooms and bathing areas. Both were dark and empty.
Once again, trying his hardest to rationalize where Belle was, Gold limped over to the bedroom door, stopping just short of it as he saw Jefferson's security system panel right next to the door. Good man, he thought, turning on the screen.
The 11-inch panel illuminated immediately, nearly blinding him with its brightness before it adjusted automatically to the dim light. Gold entered the password, which was laughably easy to remember—BETYOUCANTFIGUREOUTHISPASSWORD—and a layout schematic of the compound filled the screen. He chose the third option—motion detectors—and the screen zoomed in again, showing only the house, highlighted by two forms. One was himself, and the other was in a room on the opposite side of the house. Where's the third?
He clicked the heat sensor option, and sighed in relief as the screen now showed three bodies. The third—likely Jefferson—was lying still in his lab, which he assumed meant that Belle was in the other room.
Gold watched for a little while, seeing Belle's magenta form walk over to an adjacent room for a moment before returning to the original room, and then switched over to another screen to see the latest "threats" the system recorded. He scrolled through them, but found nothing alarming. Switching back to the schematic view, he gave Belle's colorful form one last glance, and then shut the screen off.
There, you sad sod. There was nothing to worry about. He sighed and trudged his way back to bed, feeling relief nonetheless knowing that Belle was okay and the house was clear.
Pulling up the covers, he edged his way towards the center of the bed, bringing his pillow with him. This way, he thought, he would be able to feel when Belle returned. Not that he was worried...just concerned.
He stared at the clock, watching the numbers click over from 2:41 to 2:42, and then closed his eyes.
A soft sigh beside him brought him back into awareness, and he opened his eyes to find Belle lying up against his side once again, her face only inches from his own. The bright morning light framed her tresses like a halo around her face.
Gold leaned over and saw that the clock was now showing 8:37.
Belle stirred at his movement and snuggled closer to him. "Morning," she mumbled, her warm breath blowing the errant strands of hair around her face.
He brushed the hair away, and then bent his head down to place a light kiss on her forehead. "Good morning." She gave him a slight squeeze and reciprocated the gesture, kissing his chest. "Did you sleep well?" he asked.
Her answer took him aback. He opened his mouth to ask her where she had been last night, but he choked on the words, his question turning into a gasp as he wandering hand began caressing his body. His cock was already hard and it twitched as her palm brushed against it. He closed his eyes and let out a slow, shuddering breath as he felt her fingers continue to wander downward along his thigh and then back up to his lower belly.
She paused her ministrations and leaned over, kissing him sweetly on the lips, before she stretched out beside him, letting out a little keening sound of pleasure. She collapsed back on her pillow and smiled at him, covering her mouth to stifle a yawn. "Mmm?"
"What?" he asked, not sure what the question was.
She snickered and pressed a kiss to his collarbone, and then to his pulse point, lingering on the spot, until she continued to his ear. "I asked if you slept well too," she murmured into his ear.
A shiver of pleasure ran through him as she nipped his earlobe. She pulled away slightly to look at him. "I enjoyed waking up more," he answered, freeing his hand to tuck the soft tresses framing her face behind her ear.
Belle chuckled at his lame attempt at flirtation, and leaned down, kissing him sweetly. "Me too."
Gold groaned with pleasure as Belle deepened the kiss, her hand wandering into his hair and tugging it as her fingers caught on a tangled strand.
She pulled it away with a murmured apology, and then resumed the kiss, trailing her fingers back down his chest, as her tongue, slowly and tantalizingly stroked his own.
It was a slow, lazy, and quite frankly, damn near perfect way to wake up as far as Gold was concerned. How, and why, this beautiful woman kept choosing to share this with him he would never know. Nor would he ever ask.
Belle pulled away after a long moment, giving him one last lingering kiss before swinging her legs out of bed. "I need to go check on my download."
"There's no rush," he said, reaching for her as he pushed himself up on the pillows. "I doubt your little "Q" will notice if we stay in a little while longer."
"But my search will," Belle said, turning her back to throw on one of the t-shirts that Jefferson had given them to use. "I need to get the servers back on a new search. I set them before I went to bed; they'll be done now."
Gold groaned in disappointment, and pulled the covers off, his hope of spending the morning in bed with Belle dashed.
She offered him a smile and walked back over to the bed, throwing her hair in a quick bun as she did so. "I just want to cover our bases is all," she said, placing her hands on his shoulders. "I don't want it to be like last time."
"It won't. You have something that he wants."
"I did last time too," she countered. "But, it's not that; I can deal with Haak—it's what she wants that worries me."
"I'm not going to let her hurt you, Belle."
"I know," she said, leaning over to kiss him softly. Stepping away, she shook herself and resumed her cheery smile. "Enough of that—it'll be fine. We'll be fine. We can do this."
"Yes, we can," Gold agreed automatically, trying to ignore the twinge of doubt that ran through him. "We can do this."
How the fuck are we going to do this?
Gold rolled over again, restless, and stared at the empty spot on the bed beside him. The clock's bright red glowing digits shone back at him, mocking him in their doggedly slow progression of time—3:14.
Only ten minutes had passed since he had looked at the clock last. Belle, meanwhile, had left their bed hours ago, making her now familiar excuse that she was going to go read, because she couldn't sleep—as she had every night for the past week.
Ever since their search had turned up very little useful actionable intelligence for their meeting, Belle had worked relentlessly, trying to find alternate ways of getting information. Each night, usually around 2 a.m., she would leave their bed quietly, often not returning until the early hours of the morning, claiming to be happily rested each time.
Despite his unease, Gold hadn't pressed her on it at first, deciding to allow her her space. However, after the fourth straight night of her leaving, he had finally asked her about it, concerned that she was taking Provigil to work longer. Belle had waved off his concern immediately, promising him that she wasn't taking anything of the sort. She had explained that with the upcoming meeting pressing on her mind, she was simply falling into her old habit of waking up in the middle of the night to train.
He had hesitated in questioning her further, despite sensing that it wasn't the full truth. Her training had been a comfort to her on the island, he remembered, so these nightly "training sessions" were obviously her way of coping. Hence after that, he had let her be, especially since she did seem calmer and more confident as the days passed.
Gold, on the other hand, had only grown less confident with each passing day. While, thanks to Belle's tapping of Haak's phone, they had learned that he did seem sincere in his promise to keep to their agreement—the man had been calling nearly nonstop to try and locate Belle's targets—they had unfortunately discovered no new information as to what the meeting in Dubai would entail or what Malus even was.
Belle hadn't seemed concerned about this; her lone worry lay in the fact that they would have no backup in Dubai if they were attacked again. It was this concern that had led to their tentative plan—one which was much to Jefferson's excitement, and Gold's chagrin—that they would bring Belle's asset along to Dubai to serve as a remote tech operative. That way, Gold could monitor Belle in the meeting, while Jefferson scanned the area for potential threats.
As pragmatic as this plan was, Gold was far from convinced that they needed him, and had fought with Belle on every point. While Jefferson was talented, he wasn't a field operative. He was more of a liability than an asset to them, no matter how many demonstrations the man put on trying to show he wasn't. It irritated Gold to no end that Belle chose to ignore this; she of all people should know that it wasn't a good decision to bring him into the field. However, she had been relentless in her claims that they needed him regardless.
Now, with less than a week until the meeting, Gold found himself lying in bed, wide awake, trying to come up with an alternative to bringing Jefferson along—or, even better, for not attending the meeting at all. The problem was that he couldn't think of one—or at least one that Belle would agree to.
Oh, fuck this.
Gold leaned over and clicked on the glass lamp on his nightstand. He wasn't going to be able to get any rest anyway; he could at least check on Belle. She had never forbidden him from joining her; a few minutes of her company might be just enough, he figured, to calm his racing mind and let him be able to sleep finally.
Decided, Gold swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood. A sharp pain shot up his knee immediately, causing him to gasp from the shock of it. Damned knee, he cursed, grabbing for it automatically. As much as he denied it to Belle, the damn joint hadn't stopped acting up. Years of sitting idly by and not training were kicking him in the ass whether he liked it or not.
Maybe Belle playing doctor on it wouldn't be such a bad idea after all. It would at least give both of them something to do besides wandering around in the middle of the night, he mused.
Shaking the thought, Gold limped over to the footrest at the end of the bed and picked up the pair of slacks he'd woren the day before. 3 a.m. or not, he wasn't about to wander around the house in his boxers with Jefferson lingering about.
Once dressed, he grabbed his cane and walked over to the security panel. Per usual, it showed two figures beside himself in the house—one in the lab (Jefferson) and one walking around on the opposite side of the house (Belle).
Satisfied, Gold clicked off the panel and exited the bedroom.
Even though the house was one story, the open-aired floor plan was still over 16,000 square feet, making it no small task to walk from one side to the other. In the daytime, the estate resembled one of the finest homes that Gold had ever stayed in, with its elaborately decorated rooms; at night, though, with only the moonlight to guide him, it was nothing more than a damn obstacle course.
What happened to having just a light switch? he thought, running his hand along the wall, trying to find the switch.
Just as he was about to abandon his search, his hand brushed the familiar rectangular shape, and he pressed it immediately...only to cause the screen curtains in the room to whine and begin to lower.
Ah, fuck it. It'll be dawn by the time I find these lights, he thought, releasing the switch and walking to the security panel, Belle was in the library, which wasn't that far anyways, so Gold continued on, using his cane to push away whichever objects blocked his path.
As he got closer to the library, the light intensified, thanks to the lights Belle had turned on, making it easier to navigate.
"Belle?" Gold called out softly, turning down the hallway to the library at the end. He didn't want to alarm her. If there was one thing he knew for certain, it was that ex-Rangers and surprise were two things that never combined well, so Gold called out her name again, exaggerating his steps to make his approach known. The last thing he needed was another injury.
Gold entered the library and stopped short; all of Belle's numerous books, notes, and plans were scattered about on every available surface.
"Belle?" he called out again, looking around. She was nowhere to be seen.
Unnerved, he walked over to the open corridor on the far side of the room, which led to the main entryway. It was pitch-black.
"Belle?" he called out louder, only to have his voice echo back to him.
He waited a beat, and then called her name out one more time.
Huh. He frowned. He didn't think that she would've had time to leave since he had checked the panel in their bedroom last, but then, he thought wryly, she wasn't an old cripple like him.
Thankfully, Jefferson had spared no expense in installing his security system and had installed LED panels in every room. The panel in the library was located only a few steps away, so instead of wandering the home looking for Belle, Gold walked over and lit it up.
What is that damn password? Oh yes. BETYOULLNEVERGUESS—
Gold froze just as he was about to finish typing, and jerked his head around towards the window. A dark shape ran past, just out of the corner of his eye.
What the fuck?
He remained still, waiting a moment to see if he could spot it again, but the room's reflection in the windows prevented him from getting a clear view. He solved his problem a second later by turning off the lights, drowning the room in darkness.
White spots crossed his field of vision at once, as his eyes protested the sudden darkness. They dissipated a few seconds later, allowing him to see outside.
Staying as low as his aching knee would allow, Gold edged towards the large window, hiding his body behind the curtains, and peeked around to get a better view.
There was no one there. The only movement he could see was the waves lapping on the shore.
He waited longer, keeping vigil just in case whatever he saw decided to show itself again, but the scene remained the same.
You're acting like a goddamn half-wit, he cursed himself, finally turning away from the window. Holding back the urge to look back yet again, Gold returned to the security panel and finished entering the password, bringing up the screen.
He blinked in confusion at what he saw, and then prompted up the thermal scan of the beach fronting the house immediately.
Gold didn't even bother turning it off. He was already running out of the room to the beach.
Tap, tap, tap.
Gold increased his pace, pushing his lame leg faster in time with his cane.
He reached the kitchen in seconds. Where is it...where is it? He knew that Belle had hidden guns in every room, but after searching through five drawers, opening and then slamming them shut, he settled on a steak knife. It would do the job well enough if need be.
Not wasting any more time, Gold headed straight out to the patio, and then down the small set of steps to the lower pool deck, falling nearly twice in his haste.
The quarter moon painted the area with a dull monotone palette, allowing Gold only a small hint of light to guide him, making his trek out to the sand slow and awkward. They had agreed upon arriving to shut off all the lights surrounding the property at night; a decision that Gold found himself regretting now.
Soon enough, thankfully, he reached the sand and looked down along the shore, spotting what had alerted him in the first place.
He sighed and relaxed immediately in relief. Even sprinting away from him, Gold could recognize her anywhere.
Damn. Gold shook his head, cursing himself for giving in to his long forgotten paranoia. Although, he reminded himself, it wasn't quite paranoia when you had half the world's assassins contracted to find and kill you.
With that thought in mind, he gave one more look around, scanning the area for any other movement, just in case his first assumption was in fact correct. However, the entire beach continued to remain completely still and silent, devoid of any movement whatsoever except for Belle running in the distance and the rustling palm branches. Even the sea was dead flat, allowing him to scan the horizon for any boats or glints of suspicious light, of which there were neither.
Satisfied but still embarrassingly out of breath from his short sprint, Gold walked back to a chaise lounge near the pool area to wait for Belle's return. He only made it a quarter way down before his knee gave out and he collapsed onto the chair in pain.
Goddamn. Belle was going to have a fit once she found out what he'd done. Though, I could tell her the truth that I was coming to find her to get her help...
He laughed at the thought, dismissing it immediately, and rubbed his knee again. The woman already had a frighteningly eerie ability to read him. He wouldn't be able to get out the first two words before she started reading him the riot act.
He smiled again at the thought, and glanced back down at beach to see how long he had to wait until she returned. What?
Gold braced himself against the umbrella propped up against his chair and stood up to make sure he wasn't mistaken.
He wasn't. Belle was gone.
Panic bubbled up within him once again, but he beat it back down and walked the few short steps to the beach to double-check. The stretch of sand fronting the property was narrow, but long—running for a little over two miles before it vanished around a sharp bend. It was too far for him to walk, but for Belle, it was hardly a challenge to reach the end.
She's training. She told you she was training.
An idea came to him, and he turned away from the beach and walked back through the patio area and into the house. He went straight to the first security panel he found, and scrolled through the screens, double-checking before he pushed the intercom button.
"Mr. Harrison?" He waited a moment and then pushed the button again. "Mr. Harriso—"
"Wha—what? What's wrong? What'd I do? I'm sorry," Jefferson responded in a rush.
Gold smirked to himself before pushing the button again. "Mr. Harrison?"
"Yes, boss. What's wrong? What can I do?"
"Nothing is wrong. I need you assist me in—"
Gold paused, and took a deep breath. This man... "I need you to help me check on Belle."
"She's not with you?"
"If she was with me, Mr. Harrison, would I need your help to check on her for me?"
"Ahh...no. No, I suppose not."
"She went around the south point of the beach a few minutes ago. Is there a screen on this panel that can tell where she is?"
"No," Jefferson said. "Those are just for the house."
"Is there a camera, or sensor, then, that can tell me where she is?"
"Of course. But I can only access it from down here."
Gold huffed. "Well, can you do that then, please?"
"I'm on it already, boss." The room went quiet for a second before the intercom buzzed back on. "It looks like she's headed towards the boathouse. Would you like me to ring her when she gets there and tell her that you're looking for her?"
"No, that's fine," Gold said. "Thank you, Jefferson."
"Sure thing. Do you need help with anything else? I have the harbor records that Bonnet requested ready too, if you would like to take them to her."
Gold frowned. Belle had never mentioned anything to him about a harbor, or a need for any records. "Ahh, no. That's not necessary. I'll let her know though. Thank you for your help."
"You know, if you're waiting around for her to come back, you're more than welcome to come down here and hang out with me. I'm about to start up a marathon of Homeland's series 2, while working on this encoding."
"Thank you for the offer, but I believe that I'm going to head back to bed."
"Are you sure?"
"Quite sure," Gold said, lifting his finger off the intercom button.
"Because, I can watch series one instead, if you haven't seen it before," Jefferson interjected before Gold could sign off.
"There's no need to—"
"No, I don't mind at all! The first series is the best anyways."
Gold sighed. "As I said before, Mr. Harrison, thank you for the offer, but I'm going back to bed."
Jefferson let out a little noise of disappointment. "All right. Another time then."
"Another time. Good night, Jefferson," Gold said.
With that, Gold finally released the intercom button. Sleep. He snorted, laughing at himself. There was no way that he could fall asleep now. Any attempt at returning to their bedroom and getting some rest now would be futile. No, he decided, he would simply wait for Belle to return. Plus, there was still an unopened box of Darjeeling that he had found earlier in the pantry. Nothing like some good tea to soothe the nerves.
"Yes, boss?" the intercom squawked back.
"Belle," Gold repeated in annoyance. "Where is she?"
"Uh...where she was the last time you asked me. She's still there. She hasn't left."
The last time being an hour ago. It was now nearing 5 a.m. and Belle still hadn't returned.
"And you can see her in there?"
Gold gritted his teeth in frustration. "Can you see her in the boathouse at this very moment?"
"What do you mean 'no'?" Gold asked.
"Well, I can't see her, but I know that she hasn't left," Jefferson explained. "I've been monitoring the boathouse as you asked; no one has gone in or out."
Gold looked out the large window at the brightening sky again and felt his heart begin to beat faster. "It's been two hours."
"I know, but I swear, no one's gone in or out—I'm even double-checking the footage now."
"Can't you check inside the building?"
"I am right now. I have three cameras in there, but she doesn't show up on any of them. She's there, but she hasn't moved. I'd guess that she's probably just sleeping."
Sleeping, Gold thought humorlessly. Precisely what I should be doing now.
"It's not that far of a drive," Jefferson said, interrupting his thoughts. "You can take the jeep out to go check on her if you want."
Gold shook his head. "No, that's quite all right."
"You sure? Keys are on the dash if you change your mind."
"Quite sure. Thank you, Mr. Harrison."
"Of course," Jefferson said. "I'll keep my 10-88, scanning the perimeter for any unknowns entering the target area."
"10-88—you know...maintaining my position," he explained. "I've been studying all the radio codes, getting my lingo ready for Dubai."
Fantastic, Gold thought, releasing the button, cutting off the asset. He walked back over to the kitchen island, and poured another cup of tea. In another hour it would be dawn. As much as it pained him to admit it, Jefferson was most likely correct—Belle was probably just resting; more than likely, she had decided to lie down and sleep instead of running back to the house.
But the fact that she was doing all of this alone, in the dark of night, still didn't sit well with him, especially knowing now what she was planning.
Laid out on the island before him were the vast majority of Belle's notes that he had taken from the library. After an hour had passed and she still hadn't returned, Gold had ventured back into her study to see what she was working on. Unbeknownst to him, it appeared that she had been creating contingency and get away plans for their trip to Dubai. She had written out detailed ops for nearly any scenario at the racetrack, down to noting the exact number of steps between each set of stairs and various buildings.
While writing all of these plans out was certainly prudent, and very much in line of what he had come to expect from Belle, none of her plans, disturbingly enough, mentioned him, or showed much regard for her own safety at all. Nearly two-thirds had the note "survival unlikely" written on them.
The only time that he was mentioned in any of her plans was in a small note scrawled on the side of a random page—"Cover up limp?"—with the word "limp" underlined twice. Lovely.
The fact that she had been planning all of this secretly, without asking for any of his input at all, made him feel hurt, but more so betrayed. He knew that he was a liability—he didn't need a hastily scrawled note to remind him of that—but he wasn't a fucking invalid. If his memory served him correctly, it was he who almost got the best of her in Rome. She could have at least asked for his opinion, even in an offhand way.
Cover up limp?! Gold crumpled up the note and tossed it in the trash.
Before he realized what he was doing, Gold found himself walking towards the garage and getting into the "jeep," which turned out to be a well-equipped Mercedes G5. For all of his worry about whether or not he should to go and check on Belle himself, the drive down to the boathouse was laughably short, taking less than ten minutes. In fact, if it wasn't for the lack of lights on the dirt road, he probably could have made it in five. Nevertheless, the sense of calm that had eluded him all night came upon him at once as soon as he arrived and saw the lights turned on in the boathouse out on the water.
Boathouse, though, was truly a poor choice of words for what the large structure propped out on the water was. Decent-sized compound was more like it. The one-story, 7,000 sq. ft structure stood on the end of a long wooden pier, which extended nearly a half a football field length out into the shallow water. Inside, according to Belle, there were several large rooms, including a workout room, spa, fully furnished kitchen, and several bedrooms. Gold had never been inside it himself; he had only heard about it from Belle after she had taken a day to explore it earlier in the week.
As he approached the dock, he noticed one distinct set of footprints in the packed sand down by the water coming from the direction of the house. Dammit, Jefferson had been right. Belle had indeed come and stayed here. The dim light radiating from the backside of the building seemed to confirm this as well. The realization that Belle was safe left Gold lightheaded and dizzy, as a wave of relief rushed through him.
For a half second, Gold debated leaving and dismissing this whole charade as nothing more than a ridiculous overreaction, but the temptation of seeing Belle with his own eyes proved too much to resist, and he started down towards the house.
With only the faint moonlight illuminating the uneven planks, he proceeded slowly down the dock lest he trip and fall. His knee made sure to remind him of that threat, aching with every step, making his walk even slower.
Christ, Jefferson, how long did you have to make this bloody thing? he cursed, stopping for a moment to catch his breath from the pain. It was taking him longer to walk down the damn dock than to drive to it.
He looked over at the calm water, lapping against the pillars a few feet below. No wonder Belle enjoyed swimming in it so much each morning; it was truly a tranquil setting. He had no such delusions that he could try to enjoy it the same, no matter how many times she tried to coax him into joining her. Though she had been quite persuasive…
Gold smiled to himself at the memory and looked out towards the horizon, scanning the water for Belle's form. However, aside from a slight shimmer of the moon reflecting on the water, the ocean was as flat as he had seen it during their entire stay.
Very well, Gold groaned, starting his slow trek again. Next time, he promised himself, he was going to just call her on the damn phone.
Once he got close, he noticed that the light he had seen from the beach was coming from the patio deck in the back. Although that view was obscured to him, the house itself was completely open, its walls comprised of glass accordion panels, much like the main compound, that were pulled open at the moment.
Gold stepped inside and looked around through two of the main rooms and towards the back. The house was silent.
Not wanting to wake or scare her, he removed his shoes and made his way quietly through the house, checking each of the chairs and couches he passed for Belle's sleeping form. Each room he visited, though, was empty.
Finally, he finished his impromptu tour and arrived at the main room in the back where a lone porch light was lit. This room was the largest in the house—an immense open area with a large bar on the far side of the wall and a large square jacuzzi in the center. The spa was a true showpiece; the square spa surrounded a large center section that opened seamlessly to the ocean below. It was quite the impressive architectural feature; one that Gold would have been more impressed with had Belle been in the room to admire it with him. However, much to his rising concern, like the other rooms, she was nowhere to be seen.
"Belle?" he called out softly, taking a slow turn about the large room again.
The last of his resolve broke when he walked out to the deck. It was empty.
With his heart beginning to pound, he walked over towards the water's edge to double-check to see if he had missed her swimming.
"Belle?" he called out again louder. "Belle?"
Gold began to turn around back towards the house when he looked up and froze mid-step. Oh fuck.
The security camera was out. More specifically—it was completely dismantled. He hadn't noticed it walking in, but all the others around Jefferson's property had a little red light—this one was no longer blinking at all.
Gold lowered himself slowly and looked around. The dense forest was a damn treasure trove of potential snipers nests—that was, if they weren't in the house already. Shit.
Abandoning his cane, he crab crawled quickly over towards a large table and crouched behind it. His knee burned with pain, but he ignored it, and moved again to get inside as quickly as he could.
Once back inside the living room, he stood back up to relieve his knee and pressed himself up against the wall. He looked up. The camera was out in this room as well. Whatever feed Jefferson was watching—it hadn't been this one.
Gold scowled at the darkness. He knew something had been wrong all night. He had felt it.
A small splash caught his attention and he whipped around. The sound echoed in the room's tall ceilings, making it impossible to tell what direction the splash had come from. What he could tell, though, was that someone was watching him.
There was no other sound or movement, and yet he could feel eyes on him. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up, and he moved further into the shadows, hoping that he was covered. With no weapon or way of calling for help, though, he was nothing more than sitting duck. All he could hope for was that Belle had gotten away.
One thing he did know was that he wasn't about to go down without a fight. Especially after everything they had been through; he wasn't going to give them the satisfaction of executing him like a goddamn rookie. Fuck that.
Gold scanned the room, looking for a weapon of some kind, before settling on the bar. There had to be a knife in there. Or two.
Not wanting to waste anymore time, Gold took a deep breath, bracing himself, and then took off towards the bar. He stumbled once, hitting his shin against a hard corner of a table, but he kept going, pushing off a nearby chair.
He got to the midpoint of the room when a loud gasp sounded close to his left. He spun around, ready to fight, and then jerked back in shock.
Belle was standing only a few feet from him, propped halfway down the pit of the spa with a large knife in her hand, her body frozen in a obvious throwing stance.
Gold nearly collapsed in relief. "Belle."
"Wha…what are you doing here?" she asked, not moving from her spot, or letting go of the knife.
"I thought something was wrong—that someone was here."
She blinked, shaking her head in confusion. "No."
"Are you all right?"
She looked down at herself automatically at his question; she was dripping wet and dressed in a full-body black wetsuit. She frowned and looked back up at him again. "I thought you were one of them."
"No. It's just me."
That seemed to reassure her a little bit and she finally lowered the knife in her hand. "Wha…what are you doing here?" she asked again.
"I saw you running away from the house, and then when you didn't return...I got worried," he said lamely.
"I saw a car with no lights drive up," she said, glancing back towards the beach in explanation.
No lights? Gold frowned himself, not remembering that. And then it came to him at once—no, he hadn't turned off any lights when he had parked, or any on for that matter. Shit. "I'm sorry, I was rushing, and I—"
"I couldn't see anything, because I was too far out on the water," Belle continued, as if she didn't hear him. "I thought that it must be you, but then it didn't look like you, and there had been no lights, so I thought that it must be them.
"I dove back down and swam to the house, so I could call you for help. When I surfaced in here, I heard someone moving through the house—too slowly to be you, I thought. And I didn't hear your cane, so I just assumed... And then, there were no lights on, and I knew that you would turn them on if it was you, so I went back down under the water to wait and use surprise to my advantage. And then, when I came back up..." she trailed off, shaking her head. "I didn't see—I just assumed that you were one of them...I thought that I could…"
Belle swallowed and then took a deep breath, glancing down at her hand. She flinched in shock, as if just realizing that she was still clutching the large SCUBA knife, and dropped it at once, recoiling as if it burned her. "I was going to..." She looked up. "I almost killed you," she said, her large eyes glittering in the faint light. "I wasn't thinking...oh, God, I could have—" She took another gulp of air. "I didn't think—"
Gold limped over to her side in an instant, leg be damned. "It's all right," he murmured, helping her out of the jacuzzi's pit. "I'm fine. It's my fault—I shouldn't have scared you like that."
She clung to him as they both slid down to the floor. "I'm sorry," she whispered through shaky breaths against his neck. "I didn't mean to. I'm sorry."
"It's okay," he said, stroking her back, unable to not wonder about how close he had just escaped death. Her whole body was shaking. Judging by her reaction, it was closer than he wanted to know.
He held her in silence, letting her calm herself. Before long, he felt her begin to shake harder, whether from the cold or shock, he couldn't tell, but he pulled away slowly nevertheless. She only held tighter. "We need to get you dry, sweetheart."
Belle didn't say anything, continuing to simply hold him close. After a long moment, she pulled away finally. "I need to get my things first."
"We can get it later."
"I know," she nodded, wiping her eyes, "but I don't want to have to shower twice. I'll be right back."
Before he could respond, Belle walked back over to the spa, took a deep breath, and then dived into the dark ocean below.
He gasped in surprise and leaned over to look at the dark lapping waves ten feet below him. The urge to follow her was overwhelming, but he held still, hoping that she knew what she was doing.
His trust was rewarded a few minutes later when a few large bubbles broke the surface, followed by Belle, wearing goggles and holding an inflated BCD.
"Can you hand me that rope?"
Gold looked over to his right where she was pointing and saw a coiled docking line. "This one?" he asked, holding it up.
Belle bobbed up and down in the water. "Yes. Can you toss it down?"
He did as asked at once, walking it over to her first so she wouldn't have to swim far.
"Thank you!" she called out, tying it around the small vest. Once secure, she climbed up the ladder next to him. "Thanks," she said again, taking the rope from his hands. It only took her a moment to haul up the small vest and tank.
"What were you doing with that?"
"Hmm?" She looked up from her task. "Oh, uh, I was practicing my free diving. I ran out of the mini tanks, so I put this on the bottom and practiced with this instead."
"The little handheld emergency ones. You ever used them before? Gives you about forty minutes of bottom time to get away if you use your air well." The corner of her lips twitched in an obvious attempt to not smile. "In fact," she continued, "I know a fine Scotsman you can talk to if you want to hear how well they work. I used it in Switzerland on him not too long ago."
Very funny, dearie. "Oh, you did, did you?"
"Mm hmm," she hummed, her lips barely holding their thin line. "He searched for nearly an hour afterwards he was so baffled."
"I see. And you watched him do this?"
Belle could only nod she was so close to breaking.
"Sounds rather cruel of you, letting that poor man think that you were dead."
"I don't think that he would've minded if that were the case."
"Oh, he definitely would have minded," he said. "I can assure you of that."
Belle's face broke into a smile. "Not at the time, though."
"You underestimate this Scotsman's interest in you at the time, my dear," he said, this time earning a blush. He smiled at her cleverness. "I have always wondered how you managed that."
"You only had to ask."
"I'll keep that in mind. However, I would ask that you give me a little more warning next time before you do that, though," he said, giving a pointed glance at the ocean below.
"Wha—? Oh, yes, sorry. I wasn't thinking," she said, yawning on the last word. She covered her mouth, but still yawned again. "I'm sorry, I'm exhausted."
"Well, it is the middle of the night."
"True," she sighed, standing. She held out her hand to help him up, and then looked around, frowning. "What happened to your cane?"
"I believe that it's somewhere out there still," he said, motioning to the deck outside.
She left without comment, turning on the room's lights on her way out, and returned with it a second later.
"Thank you, m'dear," he said, taking the cane. "Belle, are you certain that it was only me that you saw? There was no one else?"
He pointed up towards the corner of the ceiling. "The cameras are out."
"What?" Belle glanced around to see what he was pointing at. "Oh. I know," she said, turning back around. "Wait—" She paused, her eyes widening in understanding. "That wasn't—is that why you came out here? Because they're out?"
"No, I—" He stopped himself, realizing what she had just said. "Wait—you knew that the cameras were out?"
"Yes. I took them out."
"You...? Wha—why didn't you say anything?"
She shrugged. "I didn't think it was an issue."
"Didn't think—" He stopped, finding himself at a sudden loss for words, his forgotten anger returning full-force. "There are people out there just waiting for an opportunity to kill us and you took out the security cameras? What would possess you to do that?"
"I only did it because Jefferson was using me as a test subject for his 'surveillance training,'" Belle said. "The damned things wouldn't stop beeping. I finally couldn't take it anymore, so I disabled them and put the feed on a looping track when he was napping one day. I didn't say anything, because I didn't want him to find out and turn them back on."
"A looping track?" Gold blinked. "You put the feed on a looping track?"
"Only the interior cameras—I kept the perimeter ones intact," she said. "I certainly never would have done it, if I had known that it would cause all of this," she said, motioning around with her hands.
"You shouldn't have done it in the first place!"
"I know that now—you don't have to remind me of that." She sighed, shrugging. "Look, I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to hide it from you—I just never thought to mention it."
Gold let out a sharp laugh. "Like how you didn't think to mention your plans to me?" he shot back. Or how I've become 'the limp' that you need to deal with now?
Belle frowned in confusion, making him only more angry. "What?"
"Your plans," he said, not caring in the least how petty he sounded. "The ones you've been keeping in the library. I found them."
"And were you planning on ever mentioning them to me?" he asked, flipping his wrist in question. "Or were you planning on keeping them secret like the cameras?'
Belle shook her head again. "I wasn't keeping them secret from you."
"You weren't?" Gold scoffed, laughing bitterly. "Well, you could have fooled me."
Belle jerked back at the accusation. "Excuse me?" she asked, her voice rising to match his.
"Why else, dearie, would you work at all hours of the night, while I was asleep, if not to keep it away from me?"
"Because, it's a habit," she said, narrowing her eyes at him. "I told you that."
"A habit?" he parroted back. "And has keeping things away from me become a habit as well?"
"No! Wha—" She stopped herself, shaking her head. "Aiden, what the hell has gotten into you? I'm not hiding anything from you. And those plans? The ones you found in the library? They weren't a secret. In fact, I'm pretty sure you found them, because they were spread out all around the library where I left them last. But it doesn't even matter anyways, because they're not real plans! I do that as an exercise to help me react better during an op. That's all they are!"
"So you're planning on doing this operation all by yourself, then?"
"What?" Belle blinked again in confusion. "No! Why would you—?"
"I read through them," he said, cutting her off. "They're quite thorough. It seems that you have accounted for every scenario in your 'exercises,' except for the minor detail of having me there as well." He stopped, tilting his head to offer her a sardonic smile. "But, ah…you did mention my limp, though. That was kind of you to remember, dearie," he said, snapping his finger at her.
Belle glared at him. "Well, if you did read them, then you know that they all involve the meeting. A meeting which you can't be at! You know that. That's why I didn't account for you; I was going through scenarios that all involve me getting away alone." She paused, taking a deep breath, huffing in irritation. "And, so what if I did make a note about your knee? You can't possibly be angry at me for wanting to help you!"
"I don't need your help."
Belle's jaw dropped, for a split second he thought that she was going to hit him. "Excuse me?"
"This is my fight, Belle. I can find Koroleva myself. I don't want you to risk yourself—not for this."
If it was possible, Belle looked even angrier. "Your fight?" she asked slowly, cocking her jaw. "You don't want me to 'risk' myself, because…" She looked away and shook her head. "After everything we've been through, you're going to stand there and tell me that this is 'your' fight?"
"No," she growled, cutting him off. "You don't get to tell me that this is 'your fight,' because it isn't anymore. This is our fight. I'm in this as much as you are now."
"As if I could forget that!"
"Well then, why are you so angry at me for trying to help?" she asked.
"Because I don't want you to help!" He didn't want her there at all. Or anywhere remotely near Koroleva for that matter.
Belle sucked in a sharp breath at his words, and glared at him. She opened her mouth as if about to speak, but then snapped it shut, giving him a look of pure disgust before she shook her head and turned on her heel to walk away.
Fuck. Gold reached after her, panicked. "Belle—"
"No," she growled, swinging back around. "Don't." She held up her hand, holding him in place. She held his eye for a long moment, and then huffed, turning away again.
"Belle, I didn't mean—"
"Then, what did you mean, Aiden?" she yelled, facing him again. "That you don't want me here, because I'm getting in the way of your grand plans for revenge?"
He shook his head, taking a step towards her. "No. No, of course not."
"Then, what?!" she asked, throwing up her hands, her voice cracking on her words. "Why are you so angry with me? I have never hidden anything from you! I have never done anything to deceive you, except apparently," she said, pausing for a second to let out a bitter laugh, "God forbid, think of ways to help your knee, and try to make it out of a meeting with thirty terrorists alive. So tell me, what have I done? What have I said to make you not trust me?"
Her sad red, watery eyes bored into his, challenging him with an intensity that forced Gold to look away. Nothing, he answered himself. You have done nothing.
He glanced up to tell her so, but he had waited a second too long to respond; Belle had already turned away.
"Belle, no—" Gold moved quicker than he thought possible, catching her hand. "I do trust you."
"No, you don't," she said sadly, pulling her hand away.
He held on, not able to let her go just yet. "Yes. I do," he said more firmly. "Belle, you're the only one I trust. The only one I've ever trusted. Please, Belle...I didn't mean that—"
"Then, if you didn't mean it, then why are you so angry at me for trying to help? Why are we even fighting about this?" she cried, pulling her hand from his grasp.
"Because I can't lose you!" he yelled, causing Belle to jump. "I can't," he repeated more quietly, ducking his head away.
He looked up finally; Belle was staring at him wide-eyed, her mouth parted slightly in shock. He swallowed and shook his head. "Belle, I don't want you anywhere near that meeting. Anywhere near any of those people."
He held up a hand, stopping her. "I know you're the best at what you do—you're certainly much better than me at this now—but, every day all I think of is all the different ways that this is going to go wrong. Of all the ways that I can lose you to them."
He sighed and ran his hand through his hair, needing something to do with his shaking hands. "Belle," he continued again, "Not one fucking hour goes by when some thought comes to my mind of how I can't protect you. Of why I don't deserve you. Of why you should leave me and never come back."
"Aiden—" she said, pained.
Gold shook his head, needing to continue. "Belle, I've only had one other person in my life that I've loved; that I've wanted to protect—tried to protect—and I failed him. And now that I have you, I can't…" He looked away again, trying to blink away the faint burning in his eyes.
"I never meant for any of this to happen; to involve you in all of this," he said, gesturing around. "All I want to do is to keep you safe. Please, Belle," he pleaded, begging her, "please let me protect you. I can't lose you, too."
Belle stared for him a long moment, her chest heaving, as tears filled her eyes as well. "You...love me?"
Gold froze and felt his heart leap into his throat, as he realized that he had admitted it out loud. Unable to deny it now though, he nodded back in reply, dreading her reaction. "I do."
Before he could realize what was happening, Belle had closed the distance between them in two steps, throwing her arms around his neck, and was pulling him down into a fierce kiss.
Gold started, not believing that she was in his arms, that she was kissing him—that she'd ever want to hear those words from him at all. He didn't understand, but he also didn't want to do anything to break the moment. He kissed her back, clumsily, so shocked that he could barely remember how to kiss at all.
Finally, Belle pulled away and smiled at him. Her blue eyes were bright with tears. "I love you, too."
Gold blinked, feeling as if all the air had been knocked out of him, as he tried to wrap his mind around what Belle just said.
Belle though, simply laughed and kissed him again.
Once again, it took him a moment to react, still stunned from what she had just said, before he finally responded properly in turn, dropping his cane to wrap his hands around her waist to pull her closer. Her wetsuit soaked through his clothes at once. He couldn't care in the least through. He was still too focused on how she had told him that she loved him. Loved him.
Wanting more, he sucked on her lower lip, gently raking it with his teeth, relishing how her soft lips still tasted salty from her swim. Belle gasped, and then groaned in utter bliss as he deepened the kiss, the deep vibration sending a jolt of pleasure straight though him as well.
"Belle," he groaned, though it sounded more like a plea.
Belle pressed even closer to him in response, deftly stroking his tongue with hers, as she ran her hands up his neck and into his hair.
The sensation sent little shivers of pleasure running through him, intoxicating him. He couldn't get enough. He needed her. God, he needed her.
Belle seemed to sense his urgency as well, and ran her hands down his chest to tug at his shirt, fumbling with the buttons as she continued to kiss him.
Gold broke away, panting and breathless, and rolled his shoulders, helping her shrug off his shirt. Glancing over her shoulder, he spotted a wide couch a few steps behind, and began backing them towards it as she started to work on the button of his pants.
Not one to be at a disadvantage, Gold tugged at the wide zipper that ran down the front of her wetsuit. Belle paused, her eyes flashing up to his at the action, and then down, watching him pull her zipper down slowly—zip by zip—until it reached her belly button. She was completely bare underneath.
A coy smile grew on Belle's face, as she twisted around, contorting her body to pull off the two long arms of the wetsuit, one after the other, before letting it fall down around her waist, her eyes staying locked onto his the whole time.
He shook his head, unable to find the words for how beautiful she was.
Unable to resist any longer, Gold pulled her to him and ducked his head down, taking one of her tight nipples into his mouth, while kneading her other breast with his hand. Like her lips, her flesh was cold and salty, and utterly decadent.
A droplet of water trailed between her breasts, making him abandon her breast in favor of licking the errant drop away.
Belle's breath quickened as he continued to slowly follow the trail, licking and sucking the sensitive flesh up to her neck and the pulse point, where he kissed her again, flicking his tongue to taste her one more time.
"Aiden," Belle sighed, digging her nails into his shoulder as he sucked harder, arching her neck to the right.
"Belle," he whispered back, kissing her again.
"I need you," she breathed, pulling away so she could see him. Her blue eyes were nearly black with desire.
"I'm yours," he said, closing the small distance between them to kiss her gently, reverently.
Breaking away, Belle rested her forehead against his for a moment. He could feel her short, hot breaths against his face.
"I love you," he said, needing to say it again.
"My love," she echoed against his lips.
He pulled away slightly and saw that she was smiling at him; the utter sincerity, and what could only be described as love, shining in her eyes, nearly overwhelming him. No one had ever looked at him like that. Ever.
He began to feel choked up, a thick lump forming in his throat as his eyes burned with tears again.
She reached up and cupped his cheek, wiping his tears gently away. "Why didn't you tell me?"
He cringed at the question. "Because, I knew you could never love—"
"No," Belle said, cutting him off and silencing him with a fierce kiss that chipped away at his lingering doubts.
She pulled away, looking straight into his eyes. "I'm sorry—I should have told you sooner, but I never thought that you would ever..." She shook her head, and smiled at him again. "I love you, Aiden. I really do. Don't ever doubt that."
"Belle..." he said, unable to find any more words. He settled on kissing her thoroughly again, and then began to yank down her stubborn wetsuit from her hips. It was useless though; his fingers were shaking too badly to get any purchase with the garment.
Thankfully, Belle intervened, peeling down the two legs quickly; but as soon as she tried to step out of the wetsuit, she stumbled to the side, letting out a little gasp of surprise as she nearly fell.
Gold shot forward and caught her arm in time, steadying her.
"Thank you," she said, laughing at herself.
"Here, let me," he said, offering his arm, and tipping his head to the nearby sofa.
"Thanks." With his help, the two of them made it over to the long lounge; Belle sat down on the edge and began to yank on the stubborn neoprene bunched around her ankles. "I really hate this suit," she said, giving it another impatient pull.
Gold sat down beside her and tried to help as well. "I must agree that you look better without it."
Belle laughed, and stood up again before him, using his shoulders for balance as she kicked off the legs, leaving her standing bare before him.
Gold stared, transfixed by her beauty. When she glanced up, she caught him looking and blushed, lowering her eyes. "You are so beautiful," he said, reaching out to caress her hip. She stepped forward slightly, allowing him to pull her even closer to him. Unable to resist, he kissed her, flicking his tongue on the cool, soft flesh by her hip. "So beautiful."
Belle inhaled sharply and gripped his shoulders, anchoring herself to him, as she swayed under his touch.
He grinned and repeated the kiss, this time lower. And, then again—lower each time.
Belle's hand moved from his shoulder up into his hair in an effort to guide him to where she wanted him—down towards her center—but he resisted, wanting to draw out the moment and her pleasure.
Continuing to kiss her belly, Gold reached up and delved into her folds finally, causing Belle to gasp and stiffen in his arms. He stroked her slowly, sneaking a glance to watch her face flush in response to his touch. She closed her eyes and began to pant as he continued to tease her, only flicking her sensitive bud occasionally as he stroked her.
"Please," Belle begged, her breath ragged, as she ground up against his hand in encouragement. She bowed her head down, leaning heavily on him. Her wet curls cascaded down around him, tickling his face and shoulders.
He began to increase his attention on her clit, right to the side of it how she liked it best, while he took her breast in his mouth again, sucking and flicking her nipple with his tongue.
"Aiden," she panted, her chest heaving.
"Come for me, love," he said, pressing his fingers inside her, stroking her.
Belle keened at the intrusion; rubbing back against him harder, and then came apart, crying out as her walls clenched rhythmically around his fingers.
He watched her the whole time, mesmerized by her beauty as she continued to ride out her waves of pleasure. Even though he had seen it so many times before, the newfound knowledge that this extraordinary woman desired and loved him too made the sight of her like this nearly overwhelming.
Still breathing hard, Belle slumped down and lied down on the couch next to him, letting out a little sigh of contentment. She looked over at him, and then moved back, leaning up to undo the rest of her ruined bun before she stretched out like a cat before him in blatant invitation.
God, I don't deserve you, he thought, twisting around to lie on top of her and kiss her again, needing to kiss her again. For a fleeting moment he regretted that he wasn't younger, that he could do the things his younger self once could, but then, Belle brought him back; her clever tongue breaking through his morose spell.
She groaned into his mouth as took her breast in his hand again, teasing her hardening nipple. She matched his kiss with equal fervor, nipping at his lip before breaking away.
Before he had time to react, she snaked her hands between them and tugged at his unbuttoned pants.
Fuck. Gold froze, gasping and closing his eyes, as Belle reached in and stroked him through the silk of his boxers. "Belle," he groaned, feeling his cock twitch in her hand. He was hard—painfully so—and he felt as if he was about to lose the thin vestige of his control if she continued any longer.
As if sensing what he was about to say Belle released him right before he was about to ask her to stop, and went back to removing his pants. He helped her, shifting his hips so he could help kick off his pants and boxers. Pain shot up his right leg at the sudden movement, and he tensed, sucking in a short breath.
"You okay?" Belle asked.
He nodded, kissing her in reassurance.
She leaned back and opened her legs, allowing him to settle between them. His cock brushed against her hot center, causing both of them to moan as Belle bucked her hips up towards him.
Fuck, Gold groaned, forcing himself to be still lest he come from that alone.
"Please," Belle whispered, her nails raking up his back, pulling him towards her.
Unable to deny her anything, this especially, Gold reached down and guided himself in. Pushing his hips forward, he entered her in one long stroke.
Both of them groaned loudly at the sensation, their combined noises echoing in the cavernous room. Breathing hard, Gold hitched up higher, until he couldn't go any further. Belle clenched around him in response, and wrapped her legs up around the small of his back in encouragement.
He stilled, leaning down to kiss her, wanting to savor every bit of this. Belle followed his lead, twining her fingers though his hair, and rubbing his back as their tongues lazily stroked each other.
They broke away, needing to breathe, and Gold pulled out and thrust in again, deep and slow, making Belle cry out softly and tilt her head back, closing her eyes in pleasure.
He did it again, watching her the entire time, loving the way her blue eyes darkened, and her lips parted for him, sighing with every thrust. She gazed back at him too, and held him close, pressing herself against him. The thought that this woman was his—that she loved him back in return nearly made him falter, and he ducked his head to the side her neck, pressing a kiss right below her ear.
Belle whispered back, "yes," in his ear, and hitched her legs higher, nearly around his waist. "Yes, my love. Yes."
He gulped, and looked back at her, needing to see the truth of her words in her eyes again.
She smiled gently back up at him in reassurance, and cupped his face with her hand, rubbing her thumb against his cheek. It was there, her love, clear and open, and undeniable, even for him. The weight of that realization staggered him again. "My love," she said again, looking deeply into his eyes.
He smiled, feeling his lips quiver. "I love you," he whispered back, stroking her face in return. The words felt freeing, natural even, after denying himself the ability to say them aloud for so long.
Belle smiled wider back in return, and pulled him down into a kiss again.
He continued to kiss her as he returned to his steady rhythm. It was an exquisite pleasure, being with Belle, feeling her all around him, warm and wanting, and one he never wanted to end. Yet before long, he felt his pleasure begin to crest, and he thrust harder, jerkily so, trying to bring Belle over with him one more time.
"Uh, God—right there," Belle groaned, digging her nails into his back. "Yes."
A few thrusts later, he felt her peak and her walls clench tightly around him, contracting in fierce waves as Belle cried out again.
He followed her over the edge a moment later, unable to hold on any longer. Stars crossed his field of vision as he came hard, spilling himself within her. He let the waves of pleasure roll over him as he collapsed down onto Belle's chest, spent and out of breath.
Belle welcomed him into her arms, her hand moving up his back and into his hair, stroking his scalp slowly in languid pleasure. He couldn't even respond properly, relying on a simple kiss to the side of her throat to convey his gratitude.
He rolled over finally after a long moment, not wanting to crush her. Belle followed in turn, tucking herself against his side.
Wrapping his arm around her automatically, Gold closed his eyes and succumbed to the pleasant tiredness.
When he opened his eyes again, it was bright outside. He looked around in surprise, noticing that neither of them had moved an inch; Belle was still draped over his bare chest, her face slack with sleep, peaceful, and her hair spread haphazardly around.
He smiled, looking at her, and reached over to brush a lock of hair away from her eye.
It has to be nearly noon, he thought, glancing outside. The area where they were lying was rather cool though, thanks to the strong ocean breeze blowing through the room.
Before long, he noticed that Belle was shivering slightly. He pulled her tighter to him and rubbed her arms in an effort to warm her.
The movement stirred her and she let out a little sleepy groan, lifting her head up in confusion. "Hmm?" she mumbled, the corner of her eyes and forehead scrunching in an obvious attempt to pry her eyes to open.
"You were shivering," he whispered in explanation.
She blinked, her eyes not quite opening yet, and then collapsed back onto him again, mumbling some nonsensical reply as she curled up closer against his side.
As much as he wanted to lie there until morning, he felt her shivering begin to worsen. He lingered, pressing one last kiss to her temple, before he broke their contact and sat up.
"Don't leave," Belle groaned, reaching half-heartedly for him.
"I'm not, sweetheart. Just grabbing us a blanket."
Belle hummed in agreement, and then shut her eyes again.
Gold smiled, enjoying the moment. It reminded him of their time at his villa. If only they'd never left… He shook his head, chasing away the wistful thought, and bent down to kiss her forehead gently one more time. Pulling away, he arranged the lock of her hair away from her face again. My love.
Happy and content, he stood to walk away. But at his first step, his right leg buckled without warning, and he fell, hitting the wood floor hard.
"Aiden...?" Belle asked, sitting up. "Aiden!"
"It's all right," he lied, pulling himself back up onto the couch with Belle's help. "I think that I may have just overdone it last night." Her arms didn't loosen her grip around him though.
"Are you sure?" she asked, her eyes wide with fear. "It doesn't feel like anything else? There wasn't a 'pop'?"
Belle's look of panic didn't abate from his words, and she stared, fixated on his swollen knee. It was nearly double its usual size. "Is the pain worse or the same?"
It's unbearable. "It's the same." He forced a smile. "I've been living with this for twelve years now…it's quite familiar to me now."
"Aiden, your knee…"
"It's fine, Belle. Don't worry."
Belle flashed him a look. "You stay here," she said, helping him swing his leg over so he was lying on the couch. "I'll see about getting us some spare clothes and you some ice." She propped a pillow underneath his knee. "I'll be right back."
Gold turned his head to watch her go. Even with his knee roaring in pain, it was impossible to not look at Belle's nude form.
She gave him one last glance over her shoulder, before disappearing around the corner.
He sighed, and lay back down. The throbbing was unrelenting and made him unable to relax. God, please let her find some drugs in here. He wouldn't say anything bad about her little asset for at least a day if it turned out that the man had some aspirin here. Or preferably some scotch.
He shifted over to his left side, and then his right. "Fuck," he sighed, closing his eyes. They couldn't afford this. Not now. He needed to be able to help Belle—not be another liability that she would have to deal with.
He tried to think of alternative plans, but as soon as he felt like an idea was within his grasp, it drifted away in his haze of pain and exhaustion.
Gold's eyes snapped open at Belle's soft greeting.
She smiled, and knelt down beside him, placing an armful of clothing and robes on the ground beside her. She had changed, and was now wearing a short, white terrycloth robe that came down to her calves; her hair looked freshly washed as well, with her wet curls dripping on the floor.
"Aspirin," she said, palming out four unmarked white and red pills from the robe's pocket.
"Thank you," Gold said. He threw them back, swallowing them in a single gulp.
Belle picked up a glass of water and held it out to him. "Water?"
He nodded, and accepted the offered glass, taking a deep swig to chase the pills down before handing it back. "Thank you."
"Of course," she said, placing the glass on an adjacent table. "I got these for you too," she said, producing a small pile of clothing.
"Thank you," he said, accepting the clothes. "When did you take a shower?" He could have sworn that she hadn't been gone for more than five minutes.
"I lived in the desert for almost my whole life. I'm the master of thirty second showers," she said with a wink. She looked around and frowned in obvious displeasure at not finding that she was looking for. "I'll…I'll be right back." With that, she turned and walked across the room towards the bar.
Gold watched her and then turned back to look through the pile of clothing she had brought him. There wasn't much—a couple t-shirts, and a large pair of bright blue man's swimming trunks—but he threw them on regardless. He knew that he looked ridiculous—the garments were clearly made for a much younger and larger man—but he couldn't deny how good it felt to put something dry and warm on.
Turning around, he adjusted his position to watch Belle over by the bar. She ducked under the tall marble bar for a moment, coming up with an armful of supplies a minute later.
"The nice thing, I've discovered about having a party house…" she announced, opening another cabinet and shutting it, "is that…" She trailed off as she opened another drawer, and then looked up, grinning. "You'll never run out of ice."
She walked over to the large Sub-Zero, big copper pot in hand, and opened its doors. The familiar sound of ice cubes rumbling down an ice machine echoed throughout the room and then stopped abruptly.
"I'll see if Jefferson has anything else we can use at the main house," she said, walking back over, with the pot in one hand and several towels in the other, "but, this will at least get the swelling down for now."
Gold began to sit up and help her, but she stopped him with a hand.
"Stay there," she said, sitting down by his hip.
"Why, Agent French, are you taking advantage of me in my compromised state?" he asked, raising his eyebrow.
"That depends, Agent Gold, on whether you're a good patient or not," Belle teased back, lifting her eyebrow in turn.
"Well, in that case…" He paused, collapsing back onto the couch. "I'm at your mercy. Do your worst. Ravish me if you wish."
Belle laughed, and rolled her eyes at him. "Later."
"If you allow me to see what's wrong with your leg."
"Very well," he grumbled. He might love her, but he knew that he most certainly wasn't about to love whatever she had in mind for him.
"You'll thank me later for this," she said, grabbing her supplies off the nearby table.
Doubt it, he thought, gritting his teeth to steady himself, as she knelt by his knee to begin her examination.
Her first touch sent a sharp sliver of pain shooting up his spine and he gasped. Fuck that hurt!
"There?" she asked.
You need to ask? He winced, nodding his response instead. Not about to be caught unawares again, he moved back to prop himself up on the end of the couch to watch her and brace himself for what was coming.
"You're sure you didn't hear a pop?" she asked, bending the knee gently again.
Gold closed his eyes in reflex and gripped the side cushion. "I'm sure," he said. Why in God's name did I agree to this again?
She frowned, moving the knotted tissue around. By the look on her face, the prognosis wasn't good. "I think we're going to have to get it checked out by a real doctor. Without an MRI, I don't know if you've done anything else to it. I can stabilize it, but not much else."
Belle gave him a scathing look that said that he was going to see said doctor and that he didn't have any say in the matter.
Gold held back a retort, nodding again instead. He didn't want to fight anymore, especially not after last night, but he sure as hell wasn't going to see a fucking doctor; he didn't care what she said. The knee was what it was. It wasn't getting any better, no matter what any doctor said. It would only lead to them getting caught thanks to some man who couldn't keep his mouth shut.
Apparently finished with her impromptu torture session, Belle grabbed the ice bucket and poured half of the ice into a large Ziploc bag. After it was full, she wrapped it up in a towel, and then repeated the procedure for a second bag. "This might be a little cold," she warned, placing one above and below his knee, securing it with a rash guard shirt.
Gathering her supplies, she stood up and walked away. She returned a moment later with an armful of large beach towels. "No blankets," she said in explanation, handing a couple over to him. She placed the rest by the foot of the bed, and then took off her robe, revealing that she was only wearing a tight rash guard shirt, which matched the one on his knee, and her lace panties.
"Your friend won't worry about us being gone?" Gold asked, moving over slightly to allow her room.
"I called and told him that we were fine," Belle said, crawling over him. She leaned back over and grabbed two of the towels, shaking them out to place them over their legs. She yawned, and lay down, resuming her previous position. "I also told him not to expect us until at least dinner."
Good girl. The thought of walking back to the car wasn't even conceivable at the moment.
Minutes went by as they lay in easy silence, with only the faint sound of the waves lapping echoing in the room. He glanced over to see if Belle had fallen asleep yet
Her eyes snapped open at once. "What is it?"
"Nothing," he said, kissing her forehead.
"Are you sure? It's not bothering you too much with me here?"
He shook his head and settled himself down amongst the cushions again, drawing her to him. "Tell me about your plans."
"I need something to distract me from this until the medication kicks in," he said. "And I've discovered that your voice is the most welcome distraction of all."
Belle hesitated, no doubt worried after their row last night. "What do you want to know?"
"Well, have you settled on a plan for over there?"
"No." Belle sighed. "I'm having trouble with the logistics. I mean, if everything goes to plan, I'm fine. It's only if it all goes to hell, then I'm having trouble. I'm used to making plans that I would run with a partner; and even if we didn't have a concrete exit strategy, I knew that we had the backing of the Marines, or what not, to help us. Now—"
"You have neither of those things," he finished.
"Well, no. I have you…and Jefferson, if he counts, but, not—"
"An actual partner," he corrected. She looked up to protest, but he silenced her with a finger to her lips. "It's all right, Belle. I'm feeling the truth of that statement right now."
A long silence drew out. Despite his own exhaustion, Gold felt on edge, waiting for Belle's next question, but she continued to simply lie quietly on his chest, breathing steadily.
"I just don't know how we can do this alone," she said finally.
"We don't have to go to Dubai," Gold said.
"No, we do," she said. "This could be our only shot."
"We'll have more opportunities—"
"But, not like this," Belle said, cutting him off. "Haak…" she sighed, half yawning, "I think we can handle Haak. I'm just worried about her if she knows we're coming. We're walking in blind, and if it's a trap…I just don't like it."
"What do you need me to do?"
"I don't know." She stifled another yawn, and rubbed her cheek on his chest. "I just wish we had more people."
An idea sprang to his mind out of the blue. Bloody hell, why didn't I think of that before?
He thought through it, weighing the risks, while trying to remember if there could be any risk to Belle's cover. He thought it through again, just to be sure. He couldn't find any reason why it couldn't work.
This could work!
"What could work?" Belle asked, propping her chin up on his chest.
Gold smirked, not realizing that he had spoken aloud. "We might not have to do this alone after all."
"What do you mean?"
Gold smiled, the idea becoming more and more solid with each passing second. "Darling, I think that for the second time ever, I'm going to have to owe someone a favor."