Chapter 23

Oh god, I am a terrible person aren't I? I just disappeared off the face of the earth for about six months, I hope I don't disappoint anyone, this chapter should have enough little goodies for people the snack on until I blow out the next blockbuster chapter. That being said, to everyone who has been waiting so patiently, so faithfully for this new chapter, thanks so much. You guys are amazing and I honestly couldn't have done it without you. Please, take these chocolate chips cookies and this chapter as token of my apology?

Dear God, what have we done?

What have we done? What have you done!

She deserved the truth Robert.

She always knew the truth Rum.

She knew a variance of the truth and there is a difference.

Shut up, I was trying to protect her from this… madness.

You were doing what you always do, hiding away from the world so you don't get hurt.

Big words for someone like you.

Only if I was lying mon ami.

Enough! Where is that goddamned Lucas woman?

Taking too long, evidently.

I concur, where is she...?

If we weren't just paying her in board and food I'd put forth the motion to dock her pay.

Seconded, the woman is taking much too long… and she's getting old now… might have to replace-

Stop! Belle would hate this and it's getting us nowhere.

I concede.

I'm really enjoying this getting along thing. It gives me a warm, fluffy feeling in the depths of my heart.

You don't have a heart.

I'm hurt. That was unnecessarily harsh Bobby.

Good, rub some salt on it.

And here I was thinking we were getting along swimmingly.

Wouldn't want to encourage useless contemplation.

Again, I'm very hurt by all this.

And again, I'm not seeing a downside.

Why are you so antagonistic?

Why are you so aggravating?

Touché.

Did you say something?

What would I have to say to you?

I don't know, maybe you fancied the weather today, or maybe you wanted to communicate your rising frustration with another person.

Once more, why would I want to vent with you?

I don't understand why you don't? It's free, private and I know us inside and out.

Very amusing, come up with that yourself.

It's not like I have anyone else to bounce ideas off these days, exclusion from society tends to bring genius into the equation.

Dearie, maybe you should take it a step further.

Please explain.

Exclusion, maybe you should take it a step further and just retire from reality altogether.

I know you can't mean that, you'd miss me way too much.

Do you exist to vex me?

Perhaps, though it wasn't the reason you made me.

So help m- she waking up!

What!

Belle.

Belle.

OoOoOoO

"Belle? Sweetheart please, open your eyes."

Belle roused slowly from the drifting fog that swamped her mind. Gradually, feeling returned to her limbs, she could feel it coursing through her like a gentle river. It trickled into her extremities and, finally, she gained enough strength to ease her eyelids open. Everything blurred around her and she groaned.

"Lucas!" A harsh voice called from her left. Moments later Belle felt a warm arm wrap itself around her shoulders and help her into an upright position. Her vision still slightly tunnelled, she became aware of a cup being held to her lips and sipped eagerly. The water inside was cool and sharp, vaguely metallic and quite refreshing. Her fog began to clear and she felt dimly annoyed when Granny removed the cup from her lips… too soon in her opinion.

"You'll make yourself sick Belle, and you've given us enough of a turn today thank you." The white haired woman Belle now recognised said mildly. With a heavy sigh the brunette pushed herself higher up the settee with weakened arms, reposing against the back and gazing around the office in bewilderment.

"What happened?" She asked quietly and Granny sat down on the settee, her face creased with concern.

"You fainted. Mr Gold was ready to call the doctor if you didn't come around soon." Belle frowned and looked around the room again, surprised to see the man in question was on the other side of the room, facing the great windows that looked out over the Hudson and, by extension, with his back to her and Granny. Granny followed her gaze and it sharped as she took in the lean figure by the window.

"He's been standing there since you started coming to, refused to leave your side before that and now look at him, stiff as broiled beef." She muttered and Belle swallowed. Memories returned but she dismissed them. Her eye was suddenly caught by a book lying on the floor near the fireplace.

"My book?" She murmured and Robert finally turned from the window. With the light streaming in from behind him, she couldn't define any of his semi-shrouded features but she knew he was staring at her intently.

"Oh yes, Mr Gold?" Granny said expectantly and the man limped forward, bending when he reached the fallen novel and tipped it over to read the cover.

"The Strange Incident of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde." He read aloud and Belle's thoughts suddenly aligned. Of course, it must have been a dream. She held out her hand for the precious book and, almost cautiously, Robert walked towards her. As he approached she smiled up at him and accepted the proffered article, holding it close and peering over its pages idly.

"You said I fainted? Gosh, I never do that." She said suddenly and Granny clucked disapprovingly.

"I said as much and I still think we should send of the doctor." She said in a huff and Belle smiled placatingly, placing a hand on the woman's wrist and squeezing gently.

"I'll be alright. I'm tougher than I look, you know." She said bracingly and Granny smiled fondly. She stood and looked down on her charge, her lips twisting slightly as she did so.

"Yes, and I have dinner to think about." Granny muttered furiously, glaring at Robert as though this was all his fault. The man stayed silent under her furious gaze and waited patiently for the elderly cook to leave. A tension Belle hadn't realised was in his shoulders suddenly disappeared as the door closed.

"Robert, what's wrong?" She murmured and he sighed.

"What do you remember?" He asked carefully and Belle frowned.

"I remember a fight, we were arguing about Gaston… I remember…" She trailed off and shook her head, trying to dismiss the fantastical images that were resurfacing from the depths of her mind's eye. Of all things, Robert appeared to be prancing about the room. Belle rubbed her arms to ward of the slight chill in the room.

"Yes?" He asked earnestly and she sighed, dropping her hands to her lap.

"A dream." She said quietly and held out the novel in her hands.

"A rather fantastic and, altogether, puzzling dream." Robert was so still Belle wondered if he'd be petrified, his gloved hands tightened around the head of his cane and she tried to peer up into his face. It occurred to her suddenly that the only light in the room was coming from the window and that dusk had long been setting in. The room was almost completely dark and try as she might, Belle could only make out the bare features of her lover's face in the gloom. She put her book down on the settee and held out her hand to him pleadingly.

"Robert, why are you so far away?" She asked desperately and he took a faltering step towards her before stopping once again.

"Was it a good dream?" He asked quietly, his voice hardly raised above a whisper but carried through the still air as though shouted. Panic bells began to ring in Belle's head and she curled her fingers into a tight fist.

"Robert, what's going on?" She demanded, her throat caught and she realised she was crying. How stupid, she wondered idly.

"Belle!" Robert's voice was anxious, concern riddled every inch of him as he skirted her face tenderly with his fingertips and sat down in the exact spot Granny had vacated. His hand finally came to rest of her leg, innocently grazing the flesh of her upper knee and even in the gloom she could see the tension had returned. Her tears had stopped and she whiped at the drops irritably. His cane was now resting against the edge of the couch, his gloved fingers smoothing her hair away from her face.

"Nothing Belle, I was just worried about… you scared me." He said softly and Belle's throat caught at the unexpected admission. Robert Gold was not one to admit to being frightened, especially when others were involved. She leaned forward and eased her arms around his shoulders, hanging slightly against his frame as she gazed up into his face. Despite the tiny gap between their faces, the dim light revealed his eye-line was elsewhere. He was studiously avoiding her gaze and she pressed a gentle kiss against the gently throbbing spot on his neck, pleased when his breath left him in a quick rush.

"Belle you've just been…" He protested and tried to disentangle himself from her but she held him fast, moving quickly to settle herself on his lap and wrap her arms more securely around his neck. Mindful of his leg she moved to trace his beloved face with her fingertips, outlining the sharp lines of his eye sockets, nose and jaw, coming to rest on his lips. She leaned close to press her lips against his, a chaste movement she drew away from quickly.

"I'm fine now. I'm not hurt." She reminded him comfortingly and he swallowed audibly. His hands were resting on the settee and his body was a rigid as a post. She licked her suddenly dry lips, aware of the position they were in and feeling the familiar smile sneak across her lips. One arm detached from around his neck and she began to fiddle with the topmost buttons of his suit… only to find her process haltered by lightning fast hands. She glanced up in confusion and saw his whole countenance was taunt with apparent pain.

"Robert? What's wrong? Am I hurting you?" She asked worriedly, moving off his legs hurriedly. He shook his head slowly, tugging her other hand from around his neck and folding both her hands into her lap. Feeling like a mildly disciplined child Belle struggled to control her affront. Robert's face seemed to shake with the effort of controlling some sort of reaction and suddenly Belle needed to see his eyes. In the darkened room they were mere glints of dark reflection and she couldn't read him. Robert Gold could say a lot without saying anything at all. His eyes spoke for him, and without them, she was more than lost. There was a standing lamp behind his head and she reached cautiously passed his head to pull on the cord. With a click, light suddenly blazed the scene and Belle's instinctive shielding of her eyes was all the distraction Robert apparently needed to shift her whole weight to one side and spring from the settee. Belle scrabbled to face him but he had his back to her once more and moved off into the room… his cane still lying against the settee.

"Rum." She murmured and the man froze, one hand falling to his side and clasping at the empty air that would have housed the top of his cane. Then he began to move again, striding emphatically across the floor his hands now running through his hair in what Belle could only call distress. She rose without thinking and stepped towards him.

"NO!" He roared and she froze, staring at him with wide eyes. He kept pacing, not looking at her or pausing a moment. His shoulders were shaking and she could see his lips were moving, in fierce conversation with Robert no doubt, and Belle inched forward again, earnest to help. She didn't know why she still stayed, why she didn't just flee from this dysfunctional reality. Everything had changed, Robert's dishonesty, Rum's reveal and her own mixed emotions when it came to the pair of them, all of it piled up inside her like some gaseous cloud moments from exploding in a summer heatwave.

"Rum, stop." She said quietly and he froze, mid-stride.

"Look at me." She ordered and after a moment's pause, the wiry man turned to face her, his handsome face lined with anguish and his deep, onyx eyes glittering in the light of the lamp behind her.

"Belle… I…" He gestured uselessly and collapsed into silence. She stepped towards him, coming to stand right before his face and his instinctive flinch hurt more than she though it should have. His hands were fluttering about restlessly and she reached out to catch one but he exhaled sharply and stepped back, his movements too spritely, too energetic to belong to the same man whose body he shared. It was a surreal experience but Belle was determined, she would not be frightened off so easily.

"Rum, what's wrong?" She demanded and he scowled blackly.

"What's wrong, what's wrong, what's wrong… everything!" He shouted suddenly and she swallowed heavily, flinching but not stepping away as his face contorted into a grotesque mask.

"You can't know dearie, you cannot possibly understand what it's like to live your whole life without talking to anyone outside the man who wants you dead more than anything else in the world. You cannot comprehend the sheer insanity that brings to a man and then… and then…" He drew a deep shuddering breath and cocked his head towards her, tendrils of sable hair falling across his lean features.

"Then a voice, a single, gleaming voice pierces the darkness. At first, you don't believe it, you try to be rational and ignore it because you cannot deserve something so wonderful, so pure. A voice like a brief glimmer of light in an… an ocean of darkness, like a rope that saves you from drowning, a hand that pulls you back from the precipice you were inches from stepping off." He covered his face in his hands and Belle felt her heart crack when she saw the slim shoulders shaking with sobs.

"Oh Belle, you cannot know how much I love you. I love you with every miserable fibre of my wretched being, but I can never have you. Or even dream of it. You are never to be mine, you make Robert so very happy, the happiest he has been since I destroyed the only relationship that ever brought him joy… oh Belle, you are his and you can never be mine. Not while I'm just the hated shadow of a miserable man." He trailed off and sunk to his knees, his head bowed and his narrow shoulders shuddering with terrible sobs.

Belle sank to her knees beside him. One hand reached out tremulously and when he only flinched beneath her touch she drew even closer. Wrapping her arms around his head Belle gently held him against her chest, soothing his thick hair with her fingers like a mother would to comfort her crying child. He clung to her and it seemed as though he yearned to press his very fingerprints into her skin. In his misery he could think only of having her close.

Her emotions were in uproar. She'd longed to hear the words 'I love you' spoken by Robert, believing that the admission would heal some fractured part of her soul, but Rum's heart-rending confession only plunged her in more confusion and… strangely enough anger. She didn't know how or why she was so angry, or rather which part of the situation she was most upset about. Robert had lied to her, not directly but in silence and distrust, and his secrets had caused harm to not just himself but to those around him. His son, Rum and she herself were victims of a long and callous game, an unfair twist of fate that Robert could no more rectify that a fish learn to fly. Yet, as she held the sobbing man in her arms, Isabelle de Boire felt utterly furious with him. It was entirely unfair to her, to put all of this on her, to be this way to… she drew back slightly and scowled.

"I'm his am I?" She demanded furiously and Rum drew back in confusion, his face creased with almost infantile bewilderment.

"That's what you said. That I am his and can never be yours, like I'm some parcel or package that cannot decide my own feelings and my own thoughts. Am I really such an object to you both?" She spat viciously and felt a twinge of guilt at the way Rum flinched and his eyes glimmered with reproach. What she was saying wasn't fair, he loved her but she was hurting too.

"Belle I'm sorry." He whispered and she sneered. Pulling away she stood abruptly and turned her back on him. Her hands flew to her hips and she began to do her own pacing.

"I can't believe the two of you. Squabbling over something as infantile as… oh! You are a pair of complete idiots, you have about as much sense as a clutch of chickens and I…" She pulled up short and drew a deep breath.

"And I am going for a walk." Belle said firmly and turned to the door without another word.

"Belle, please come back!" Rum pleaded but Belle shook her head. Holding a hand out to him she glared at him with a baleful eye. He held her gaze for a moment before slumping pitifully against the leg of the settee. She watched him for another heartbeat then turned on her heel and marched down the corridor to the elevator. On the way across the foyer Mary Margret called out to her but Belle had no stomach for conversing with others and so nodded shortly before striding out the door. She realised her mistake almost as soon as she walked out into the night air, which brisked and sliced at her arms and face. Holding her arms around herself she trudged through the rapidly darkening streets, barely seeing people around her and just trying to think of anything but what was behind her. It was well past sundown by the time she entered Tin-City, a desolate and depressing settlement in the centre of a great park some ten or so blocks away from The Palace. Here Belle slowed to a leisurely walk and actually began to take in her surroundings. The ground beneath her feet was rutted and strewn with garbage, a foul, clinging scent hung in the air and she saw thin, haggard faces peering out from the confines of corrugated prisons. Children didn't laugh, there were no old people and the men and women that hurried by her did so without pause or care, their misery and exhaustion straining faces paler than the waning moon high above. Eventually Belle's feet began to hurt and she gazed around for a place to sit. She spotted a small rocky ledge of what might have been a garden wall which would do for a quick pitch. Carefully she removed her shoe and rubbed at the soles of her feet, easing the ache from them and gazing around the dilapidated city.

"You are new here, non?" A soft, lightly accented voice called from behind her and Belle whirled around to see a woman of middling years with grey streaks gleaming out of chestnut curls she had covered with a patched woollen scarf, standing on the path behind her. Her face was wan with weeks of waiting, her mouth slightly pinched and her dark eyes were laden with the permeating sorrow of Tin-City. In her arms she held a basket filled with an assortment of washing, about as large as a small child, and she was gazing at Belle with a frank but compassionate gaze. Eventually what she had said sunk in and Belle shook her head.

"Um, no Madame. I am just resting here." She said and the woman chuckled hollowly.

"Resting? Not many people have the luxury of that these days. What is your name?" She asked curiously, stepping forward to peer short-sightedly at Belle. Belle replaced her shoe and stood.

"Belle de Boire." She said and the woman smiled brightly.

"Ah! You are French, non?" She asked excitedly and Belle couldn't help but smile back at the woman obvious enthusiasm.

"I'm afraid I was born here, in America, but my father came from France before the war." She said placatingly and the woman clapped her hands joyously.

"Oh, manifique! Come, come, it's not good for a girl to be out by herself." She said and indicated for Belle to follow her away from the garden. Belle stayed where she was.

"Who are you?" She asked suspiciously and the woman turned around slowly.

"Gabrielle Louis." She said simply and turned away to walk again. Seeing no other option Belle followed Madam Louis and together they traversed the settlement, stopping every now and again to collect clothing from other pinch-faced women. There was no curiosity in these women's faces, only fixed expressions of determination. They asked no questions, only tipped a tip of bronze in Madame Louis' hand and turned to re-enter their homes, more often than not bursting with crying children, yapping dogs and boiling pots. Belle gazed around at the poverty in shock, being away from the cold and damp of home had deprived her of the realities of life down in the streets of New York. While life at The Palace was no bed of roses, New York was still in the grips of a depression and there were people a hundred-fold less well off than she. Guilt turned sour in her gut as she followed Madame Louis to a secluded spot some distance from the other hovels, surrounded on three sides by long lines of washing and steel tubs of all sizes. A small, mousy-haired girl bounced out of the house at their approach and kissed Madame Louis on the cheeks.

"Maman, Maman!" She called joyously.

"This is my daughter Minouche, she is training with the tumblers of the Vaudeville show… the best of them all I think." Madame Louis said proudly as she pressed a kiss to her daughter's head. Belle smiled at the dark haired child who glanced up to reveal a freckled face that housed a wide, gap-toothed smile.

"Minouche, mon ange, this is Belle de Boire." Louis said as an introduction and the cherub curtsied sweetly.

"Bonjour Mademoiselle, you are… beautiful?" She said uncertainly, glanced at her mother and smiling when the woman nodded.

"Oui, beautiful." The gap-toothed Minouche murmured and Belle flushed.

"Thank you Minouche." She said quietly and the girl tugged on her hand. She was very young, no more than eight or nine years old and Belle thought of Eva briefly.

"Why are you so sad?" Minouche asked curiously and Madame Louis scowled.

"Minouche!" She remanded and the girl ducked her head.

"No it's alright, I am upset but I realised what I thought was an awful ordeal was really just some stupid thing not worth worrying about... coming here has shown me that." Belle murmured softly and Minouche frowned. So did her mother.

"We don't need your pity Mademoiselle de Boire." She said curtly and Belle gaped, before her cheeks blazed with colour.

"I sincerely apologise Madame Louis, I meant no disrespect. All I meant was that I've been so short-sighted and selfish, my troubles probably don't hold a candle to most people's these days." She said ashamedly and the woman smiled wanly.

"My dear, each of us has troubles, tis God's way of testing our merits. Some are worse off because it must be so and others are incomparably troubled. That does not mean they are any less uncomfortable or hurt by what's happened to them, we each suffer a different torment." She said comfortingly and Belle sighed deeply.

"Ah, a girl only looks that upset when a man is involved. Useless, trouble-making things." Madame Louis muttered and Belle laughed despite herself.

"Good, you can still laugh. That is good." Gabrielle said and dumped her basket of clothes by the door and moved to test the tin kettle boiling over the stove. Minouche planted herself down on the threadbare mattress she obviously shared with her mother and Belle sat down on the slight raise in the doorway as Madame Louis handed her a thin cup of tea that was more water than anything else. Belle gulped it down gratefully.

"Now, tell me what's the matter… is he master or lover?" Madame Louis asked candidly. Belle flushed and looked over at Minouche. Madame Louis waved it off as the young girl grinned.

"Ah, Minouche is wise beyond her years. Go on, your secrets are safe here." Belle paused, cradling her cup.

"Why are you being so nice to me?" She asked and Madame Louis drew her shawl more tightly about her shoulders.

"Because tonight I saw a young, beautiful girl without a coat, sitting in the middle of a shanty-town with a lost look on her face and three men staring at her in a way that made me worry." She answer primly and Belle swallowed heavily. She shakily put the mug down.

"Thank you." She said quietly and the woman cocked her head.

"Tis God's will, we must do to others as we wish to be treated by others. We are all brothers and sisters in his eyes." She said and thumbed at the vacant space of her neckline, where Belle was convinced a rosary would once have hung. That small gesture made her heart squeeze.

"It is about a man." She said, trying to move the conversation away from dangerous ground.

"The man I love actually." Madame Louis snorted.

"Oh course, young girls always reckon themselves in love." She said and Belle frowned. Minouche coughed.

"Did he give you those?" She asked and Belle looked at her. The girl was pointing to the very last remnants of her attack on New Year, which were yellows so faint it was a wonder the girl had seen them at all.

"No, he… he saved my life that night." Belle murmured, gazing at the bruises blandly and Madam Louis sighed.

"But…?" She prodded.

"But I found out today, that he is not the man he told me he was. I love him very much, and I know a part of him loves me too, but he's been hurt and is so afraid of being hurt again that he won't let anyone in. He's convinced the whole world is against him and he won't let me in until it's too late." Belle choked on the last word and stopped, bringing a hand to her lips.

"Sounds like you have a real… Monsieur Complique." Minouche murmured and Belle laughed again.

"I suppose I do." She said softly and Madam Louis nodded slowly.

"But I know it must be nothing to your own troubles so I will just grit my teeth and bare it, like everyone else." Belle murmured and Madame Louis snorted.

"Our troubles began when Minouche's father died. He was not rich nor was he a particularly influential man but he left us enough to have a chance at life here in America." She said softly and Minouche crawled across the space to lean against Belle's shoulder. Belle wrapped an arm around the slim girl's shoulders as she listened to the older woman speak.

"When the depression came we were living by the docks and eventually the money ran out, I resorted to mending clothes and washing laundry, Moinouche does shows every Saturday night with some other kids. The circus is our ticket out of here and if we can convince the director she has potential, we can leave this place for Europe and stay with relatives in France… you see, we make do and adapt. My advice would be for you to do the same. Don't ever run from your troubles, face them and make them work for you." Belle flinched, realising she was running, running hard and fast from her problems. The thought made her blanched. Madame Louis patted her fondly on the head.

"You are neither stupid nor cowardly." She murmured, seeming startled at her own genius. She crossed herself fitfully and Belle soaked in her words. Minouche snuggled into her side and Belle glanced down at the little girl, wondering for the first time what her own children would look like. Her life had never held a place for them but, wherever she turned, she seemed to be finding little vagrants that warmed her heart and steadily eroded the foundations of her reluctance. Perhaps she would have them, some day. A little girl would be nice. Madame Louis shook her shoulder and Belle realised with a start that she had dozed off.

"I was just about to blow out the candle, I realised you have a place to be but we would not mind you staying the night here… give you some time away to gather your strength." She said and Belle was deeply touched.

"Thank you, you are very kind." She said and sat up, Minouche's head falling into her lap as the child continued to doze peacefully. Gabrielle smiled and smoothed her daughter's cheek.

"Precious non?" She asked and Belle nodded. Together they placed the child beneath the thin blankets of the mattress and after extinguishing the light, Belle stripped to her shift and stockings, folding her dress over the top to give the three of them an extra layer of warmth. Gabrielle curled herself around Minouche and peered through the darkness at Belle. A warn, paper-dry hand clutched at Belle's and the two women smiled despite the blinding darkness.

"Do not lose hope in love Belle, it has the power to overcome any obstacle and redeems any man brave enough to accept it. Men realise this later than women of course, but eventually they do and everyone is better off for it." She said and Belle laughed quietly.

"If I'm patient enough, if I give him everything I am, maybe he'll figure it all out and then, just maybe, we will be happy." Belle murmured with a yawn and the woman sighed.

"Just don't give up being you. There's a difference between healing a man through sacrifice, and sacrificing yourself for a man." The Frenchwoman warned and Belle waited until the woman's breathing evened out and slumber overcame the Louis women. For a long time she lay awake in the darkness, blinded but not deafened to the noises of midnight New York. Dogs barked, cars honked and the city thrummed with the constant energy of life. All around the leaves on trees and sheets of iron around Tin-City fluttered in the autumn breezes and the gentle sounds of night eased Belle into a distant floating that eventually carried her into sleep.

OoOoOoO

"Wake up Belle!" A small, rapidly moving projectile launched itself into her side and Belle grunted as the wriggling bundle slowly formed into the grinned shape of Minouche Louis. Belle groaned theatrically and clutched at her side, as though the knobbly knees that had collided there had caused her great pain.

"Belle?" Minouche asked worriedly, her hands fluttering over Belle's shoulders and side. Belle suddenly wrapped her arms around the tiny girl's waist and pulled her down beside her, her fingers seeking the sensitive spots beneath Minouche's ribs. Shrieks of laughter filled the hut and they were stopped only by the sound of Madame Louis' cough from the door. The pair turned simultaneously to the chestnut haired woman and Belle quickly rolled out of bed, grabbing the blue dress she had discarded the night before from atop the other blankets.

"Good morning Gabrielle." She murmured as she wriggled into the gown, tying the fastenings closed and running her fingers half-heartedly through her hair. The Frenchwoman waved airily.

"Bonjour Belle, I hope you slept well." She said as she stooped to pick up an empty basket by the door. Belle nodded.

"Yes, thank you." She said breezily.

"I'll get out of your hair now."

"Minouche, make sure Belle gets out of here safely… and come straight back, Monsueir Barkus came earlier and I think he wants to speak to you." Minouche trembled with excitement. Belle went to shake Gabrielle's hand but found herself enveloped in the woman's arms, kisses pressed to the air beside her cheeks. Touched by the display of affection Belle returned the kisses, grasping the woman's arms and smiling gratefully into her glittering brown eyes. The laundress gathered her shawl about her and turned away, muttering about clothes that needed washing and Belle smiled down at the imp beside her.

"Alright, where to?" She asked and Minouche set off at a brisk trot. In the day light Tin-City sparkled, the grime and filth somehow greyed by the presence of sunshine and the people's faces no longer as drawn as before. There were more children about now and several of them ran over to Minouche, whispering excitedly to her and disappearing just as quickly to play tin-can football or jump rope. The little girl chattered incessantly as they walked, pointing out the sights of the township and particular people who she found fascinating. Belle listened and nodded, gazing around and pulling up short as a familiar face surfaced from the crowd.

"Paige?" Belle called and the girl's head whipped around, peering over the heads of children to alight on Belle. For a moment the girl seemed frozen to the spot, then she ran full tilted across the laneway and enveloped Belle in a bone crushing hug. Belle struggled instinctively then wrapped her arms around the girls shoulders when she realised the poor dear was crying.

"It's Grace now, I'm Grace H-Hatter." She sobbed and Belle pulled back to stare at the girl in amazement.

"He found you, he really found you?" She murmured and the mousy-haired teenager nodded, her enormous eyes shimmering with tears.

"Thanks to you, I got off the streets and found my parents all thanks to you Belle de Boire." She said and Belle smiled. Minouche appeared at her elbow and eyes Grace suspiciously.

"Who is this Belle?" She asked warily and Belle chuckled, wrapping an arm around the mite's thin shoulders.

"Minouche, this is Grace Hatter. A friend of mine." Belle said and the two girls eyed each other for a moment.

"I've seen you with the soup kitchens, Mademoiselle Hatter." Minouche murmured and ducked her head respectfully. Grace smiled.

"Yes, after mother and father found out how I'd been living, they set up an initiative with some of the local churches that creates jobs for some of the Tin-City women. Every day we set up a station that makes meals for the elderly and the children here. It's not much, but it stops kids from stealing for food and gives income to those families that were struggling before." Grace muttered and Belle exhaled in amazement.

"That's incredible Grace, you're really making a difference. Small stones will eventually topple a mountain." She said and the young woman smoothed her splattered apron anxiously.

"Are you…?" She began and Belle shook her head.

"No, passing through. I took a walk last night and ended up here, Minouche and her mother gave me a roof to sleep under and I'm heading home now." Belle said and Grace laughed.

"If you have a home, why do you keep running off?" She asked and Belle frowned.

"I… don't know." She said and Grace sniggered.

"Nothing like a night of the streets to clear your head huh?" She muttered and Belle rolled her eyes. She suddenly remembered the children she'd last seen with Grace.

"What happened to the others?" She asked and Grace's pretty face paled.

"Liam and Darcy disappeared one night, their sister went missing and they were desperate to find her. I haven't seen them in weeks." She said and Belle swallowed thickly.

"Ava? Nick?" She asked fearfully and Grace smiled.

"Still reluctant to accept soup from me now I'm what they call 'a proper lady' but they're still here and thriving where they can." She said and Belle sighed with relief.

"Thank goodness." She murmured and felt a tug on her sleeve. Looking down she saw Minouche's anxious face.

"I have to go Belle, Monsueir Barkus is the circus master and…" Belle cut her off.

"Say no more my petite extraordinaire, go and be a fantastic performer." She said and the girl began to tear.

"I don't want you to go." She murmured and Belle swallowed, hugging the thin creature tightly.

"I promise, I will come back and see you. Maybe I'll come to one of your shows?" She said cheerfully and Minouche's eyes widened.

"Would you?" She asked pleadingly and Belle nodded, glad to see a crisis now averted. Waving to the little brunette until she was well out of sight Belle turned to find Grace still standing and waiting for her attention to return.

"I can show you out of here if you need me." She offered and Belle nodded gratefully.

"Wonderful!" Grace said with an excited clap and looped her arm through Belle's, setting off through the gradually thickening crowd. The pair didn't say much, in fact Belle sensed Grace was someone with little to say outside necessity and so they walked together in comfortable quiet until Belle recognised a street skirting the park. It would take her straight to the Palace and she knew it was well past time to be back. Ruby was probably going to kill her, after Robert finished having his fit. She unlooped herself from Grace's grasp and embraced the slim woman.

"Thank you Grace, I wish you all the happiness in the world." She whispered and Grace's lips tugged upwards in an easy curve, bright tresses bobbing as she pulled back.

"Take care Belle." She said as they parted, Belle heading off towards the street, Grace back to her soup station. As she walked Belle pondered her fortunes, aware that for the second time in only a few months she had been given enough chances to make a priest cry miracle. How else could she explain running into people whose guidance and advice steered her to be a braver, better person? Serendipity. Pure and simple serendipity. With a waltz in her step she glided down the sidewalk, smiling at the disapproving frowns of busybodies that would have once made her cringe away in shame. She was past caring what they thought, and nothing was going to spoil her mood now.

OoOoOoO

Robert sat idly by the spinning wheel, one hand tracing the sturdy wooden frame as his mind wandered. The moment Belle had left Robert felt the Dark One, or whichever name he went by these days, dissipate from his conscious mind. Now, with an abstract nightmare of a memory torturing his every waking moment, Robert could only sit and… He was not moping. Robert Gold did not mope. He stood up and swore viciously when his knee jerked without the support of his cane.

"Sir?" A voice called through the door and he opened his mouth to shout at the fool Lucas widow.

"If you yell at her I'll make you wish, with genuine fondness, that the rest of your body was like your knee." Belle's voice, her beautiful voice, floated through the door, moments before she herself breezed into his dungeon of an office. Immediately the place seemed to lighten. His mouth clacked shut and she nodded shortly.

"Thanks Granny, I'll be down in half an hour to help out." She murmured to the grey haired woman, who nodded and walked away without so much as a by-your-leave to him. He almost opened his mouth to berate her but thought better of it when he caught sight of Belle's face.

"I think we should sit down for this." Belle said softly and Robert nodded quickly.

"Of course." He murmured and led her over to their chairs by the fireplace. When Belle was comfortably seated he took his own seat, folding both his hands over the top of his cane and staring avidly at the patterns in the woodwork. He'd never noticed before, but there were some peculiar shapes in those floorboards.

"Look at me please." Belle demanded and he lifted his face to hers. She stared into his eyes for a long moment, then nodded.

"Excellent, you're the one I need to talk to right now." She muttered, almost to herself, and Robert almost fell of his chair. She could tell? Between them?

"Don't look so surprised, you may share a body but there is nothing similar about you or Rum." Belle said and Robert swallowed. She seemed almost calm, no she was calm. Completely and utterly at ease with what was happening. How the hell had a city like New York done that to her in a single night?

"Belle, I just want to say…"

"Robert, please- shut up." She said and he clamped his mouth shut, glad that she had cut him off. He'd had no idea what he was going to say anyway.

"Now, we need to set a few things straight. I know about the serum, Bae, and everything that Rum told me yesterday, that's not the issue here." She said and Robert frowned. Not the issue? Seeing his confusion Belle smiled softly.

"Robert, a problem only stays a problem when you let it. Right now, your problem isn't Rum, it's not letting the people who love you, help you. You don't trust anyone." She paused and took a deep breath.

"You never let me in. Not once. Not really. I thought we had decided to trust each other, after everything we've done, and on top of that I've given you everything I had. For God's sake I gave you my word, my services and my body, just to give us a chance at happiness. I would give you my heart too, but you keep slamming the door in my face." She stopped and swallowed, her jewel-bright eyes flickering with tears.

"Belle, sweetheart, it's harder than that. I'm not the easiest man to deal with, and I don't just trust people overnight." He said softly, regretfully, and was startled to see his Belle smile.

"And that's why we need to do this properly." She said firmly and stood up, brushing the dirt from her skirts. He gaped up at her.

"Let's start over okay? We can't miraculously start trusting each other, as you say, overnight. It's going to take time, but with time comes trust. And if I'm going to love you both, all three of us are going to have to change." She said and Robert quirked an eyebrow.

"Both of us?" He repeated and she cocked her head thoughtfully.

"Of course, as Rum pointed out, I can't have just one of you. You have yet to figure out a way of separating yourselves and, as it turns out, I don't want you to. You're both integral parts of why I love you, there's traits in you both that make this relationship worth the effort. Love is layered, it's not easy, but with time, we could do it Robert, and Rum too if you can hear me."

She loves me?

"Did he say something?" She asked and Robert nodded slowly. She waited expectantly, but he was not so forthcoming, a lifetime of habit closing in around him.

"Robert, I see that the first thing we need to work on is communicating with each other. Without that, everything will fall apart. What did Rumple say?" She asked persistently and Robert sighed.

"He asked if you loved him dearie, in a way that was both incredulous and fearful." He said sardonically and Belle frowned… pensively.

"I'm not sure. I'm not sure I love you like I did two days ago either Robert. We can never be what we were, but that's just something we'll have to live with." She said finally and Robert felt a painful twinge in his chest. After a moment he screwed together the remnants of his courage.

"Start over you say?" He asked, hoping he didn't sound as tentative as he felt. Belle nodded.

"That means no kisses, no sex and more getting to know each other. We should go on dates, talk more about our likes, our dislikes. That sort of thing." She said encouragingly and Robert couldn't help himself.

"And make daisy chains for each other's hair and sing Kumbyah?" He remarked dryly and, to his delight, Belle laughed.

"If you feel so inclined." She retorted, and that made the three of them laugh.

She's good for us both.

Yes, I do believe she is.

"Alright dearie, let's make a deal." Robert said theatrically and Belle frowned slightly. He held up a hand lightly and went on.

"We'll make a deal to trust one another."

"Robert, you can't just-"

"I wasn't finished sweetheart." He murmured pointedly and she flushed, prettily too.

"As I was saying. We'll make a deal to trust each other, so that…" He paused, swallowing heavily and not believing he was actually going to say this. Belle leaned forward.

"So that, we can leave for Europe and try to find Bae, one last time and then spend as long as we want trying to make this work." He said at last and Belle smiled. It was a sweet, breathtaking smile.

"What are you saying?" She asked excitedly and he exhaled heavily. The weight of the world settled on his shoulders but the path ahead was as sure, as steady as it was ever going to get. She was right, one hundred percent correct. He needed to trust her, he needed to start trusting again period. He needed to start being the man she believed he could be, the better man, so that he could find his boy and know he was a father Bae could be proud of.

"Would you excuse me if I don't get down on my knee?" He asked sarcastically and she sniggered.

"It could be interesting." She remarked dryly, then she covered her mouth in shock. He smiled and watched her aquamarine eyes widen to their absolutely limits.

"Isabelle de Boire, after we've gone to find Bae and with his blessing or in the case that we do not find him before the end of Spring," He drew a deep breath and reached out to clasp her two petite hands between his. They were so light and delicate compared to his, he shouldn't ask, shouldn't make her do this. It was wrong, selfish and terrifying. She was so pure and he so broken, it couldn't possibly work, it shouldn't. But for the first time, in a very long time, the two halves of himself were in perfect sync. For the first time in his life, he knew that he was doing the right thing.

Do it.

"Isabelle de Boire… will you marry me?" He asked softly.

Dun, dun, DUNNNNNN! OMG, did he just…? OMG he did! Come on, be honest, who saw that coming? I sure as hell didn't- I just write what the muse wants and today the muse wanted marriage. But please, for all my angst-buddies out there, there is so much coming up to rock your worlds I almost want to spill it.

Please, you all know what comes now right? Do I need to ask? Yes of course, because I'm needy. Please review, I don't deserve it after all the waiting I've put you through but please, please, please, review.

Love to all.