Dr. Belle French had all the degrees and expertise that a top scientist could aim to earn, and yet, at this particular point in time and space, neither seemed remotely helpful in the face of the furious pounding sounds coming from the plane's engines and her own flurry of disquieting, electrical thoughts. Questions of "How?" and "Why?" were twinning in her mind faster than she could ever hope to get DNA helices to coil, back at her lab, and they all gravitated around the vision in black currently, and quite gingerly, seated to her left.
Having Gold in the unexpected posture of flight companion seemed to act as a catalyst for her fear of flying. Although their nature remained a mystery, Belle could feel new emotions pouring into an already simmering potion of anxieties and fears, sky-rocketing her light-headedness. Gold's presence by her side was fringing all probability laws, and she should have known better than to put past the headstrong man the attempt to defy statistics.
Shivering, her vision blurring of its own accord, it was near impossible to make out the words an increasingly alarmed Gold was breathing near her ear. Well, hear him Belle could not, but feel him she did, the warmth radiating from his body a pleasant contrast to the cool air starting to ruthlessly poke at her from the plane's ventilation system. She could tell his brogue was thicker than usual, his voice as soft as she has ever heard it, but she swiftly discovered that such thoughts were not helping her condition. At all.
What always comforted Belle in such moments of utter panic was this little trick that she'd invented, a brief escape to another, more familiar time and place. She would use it to catch her breath when feeling anxious, as one often is when working with hazardous chemicals, and she would awkwardly acknowledge to herself that it had also saved her reputation in quite a number of social gatherings. She could only hope the little time-travelling stunt wouldn't fail her at this time either.
The trick consisted in focusing her mind on one aspect of the current situation that she had absolute control over. Well, she had little say in either safely flying the aircraft or having to spend the next hours in Gold's company, but there was one thing that Belle knew and could handle quite well, and that was chromatics. The fact that her boss was dressed in shocking all black merely gave her the incentive she needed, and it took no coercing at all for her thoughts to comfortably digress to what she had learned back in college, during the physics lectures.
And so, as Belle pictured in her mind's eye the black suit Gold was wearing that day, more images readily followed, portraits of other black suits he had worn during their numerous meetings. Each was of a different shade of black, had a particular cut and was spiced up with a distinct tie to suit his mood and intentions - to impress, intimidate or impel, and yet each was so very much him.
Black, a colour that is no colour at all, but the lack of any. It suited Mr. Gold. A man dressed in black - a man coerced by his own nature to lead a grim life. A man who chooses, day after day, to live in darkness, sentencing himself to a solitary existence devoid of feeling and flavour. A man who, by doing so, has become a black hole, greedily collecting all trinkets and trophies he comes into contact with, hiding them in his shadowy lair only to realize that they do not make him happy. He is but trapped with them within his own void for all eternity, frozen in time and unable to break free.
Belle can't help an inward, self-deprecating laugh as her mind further attempts to rationalize her whitening vision as a feeble attempt of the universe to counteract all the black in Gold's countenance. As if by stepping into his path she could somehow open imaginary curtains, let some light into his existence and dissolve part of his darkness. White, all colours of the rainbow combined, pure and joyous, the very life pulsating with its good and bad, in strong hues or barely discernible ones. Life, enthalpy and entropy, collisions and conversations, confided secrets and soul deep touches, warm smiles and imprints on the other one's skin; brave, bookish girls fond of old monsters striving to become better men...
"Now where did all that come from?" Belle shakes her head and takes a few deep breaths, noting relieved that her grounding technique works even at 30,000 feet above ground. She feels much calmer, and gives her thanks to science for once more being her anchor. She does not feel brave, not at all, but as she gradually loosens her grip on the arms of her seat, and her eyes shut less tightly, she knows that she is at least trying to be.
She hears Gold's voice from afar coming closer and closer, one airy coordination sphere at a time, and she feels warm, hesitant fingers gently brush away a stray curl from her cheek. Then, unexpectedly, a slightly trembling hand blankets hers on the arm of the seat. When the drumming of Belle's heart subsides to a somewhat tolerable level, she tentatively opens her left eye, peeking in Gold's direction.
"Not a takeoff-induced hallucination then," she thinks to herself as her gaze meets real and concerned brown eyes.
"Dearie?" Gold seems to be studying her just as much as she is him, his face creased with worry. She knows it shouldn't warm her as much as it does, after all, any man would be concerned in his place. And yet he is not any man, and, for some strange reason she cannot comprehend, she doesn't want to miss a single second of him wearing that soft expression. Gradually, his features relax into slight amusement and something else, something that Belle thinks might be akin to fondness.
"That's... good," he says tentatively. "Now, would you please try to open both your eyes for me? You look funny," he chuckles.
And so Belle bursts into genuine laughter, feeling it take away the remnants of her anguish. Not only does she open her eyes, but she dares to peek through the plane's window, and she's relieved to find the sight considerably less terrifying than the previous image imprinted in her mind - racing tires impatient to leave the runway.
"Here, would you take a sip?" Gold whispers as he forwards her a glass of water he has seemingly magicked out of nowhere, and Belle grasps it gratefully, offering a small smile in return. She proceeds to bury her nose in the tiny plastic container, wondering how to go about a conversation.
"Well..." Gold exhales loudly, as if he's the one who has just gotten a heavy weight off his chest, not her, "It's common knowledge my presence elicits all sorts of responses. And yet, this has most certainly been a first," he adds smugly, and Belle's nose crinkles inside her glass.
"No reason to be smug, Mr. Gold," she replies, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible given the situation. "It just so happens that I'm a bit afraid of takeovers... takeouts... takeoffs!"
"Clearly, I am not as recovered as I have thought," Belle sighs as she leans her head against her chair in dismay, whispering a tiny, yet pertinent "Fuck". Gold, on the other hand, seems to be enjoying himself to bits. He watches her from the corner of his eye and she can tell that he's trying, quite unsuccessfully, to suppress a ferociously grand grin.
"Profanity on a business trip, Dr. French?" he chuckles, shaking his head in mock outrage. "It's a good thing we're not Academics," he adds, leaning towards her, and, for one horribly confusing moment, Belle thinks he's about to poke her shoulder with his.
"Fine, let him have his fun," she thinks to herself. "Eight hours are plenty of time to pay him back in full." Belle grins in her cup.
"Maybe you should try to rest a bit, Ms. French," Gold forwards, seeing how his prodding elicits no further response from her. "You look quite tired." His voice is once again soft, yet Belle fails to register the concern in it, focusing on his words instead. "Seriously, Gold? Calling me dirty mouthed, then telling me I look a mess?" She manages to suppress replying with another profanity - or, more likely, with a string of.
"Yes, I'll do just that," she says flatly as she turns her back to him, a bit more forcefully than necessary, and cuddles into her seat. For long minutes she strains her ears for any sound coming from Gold, before she realizes what she's doing and chastises herself for her stupidity. Belle's last thought before sleep overtakes her is that she hasn't pouted like this since she was but a little child.
Her traitorous body must have turned in her sleep, because when Belle awakes, she finds herself leaning on her left side, facing Gold. She's pleasantly warmth, and she wrinkles her nose happily when she notices she is wrapped to her neck in a soft, light blue blanket, its corners embroidered with the air company's monogram - "Golden Air".
Her boss, too, seems to be quite at ease. Belle studies Gold as he sits in his seat, glasses on the tip of his nose, laptop on his thighs and a focused look on his face. He has discarded his suit jacket and a colourful bunch of post-its now emerges from his shirt pocket. Every once or so often he frowns, a deep crease forming between his brows, and she can't help but smile, knowing this is exactly how she looks when she focuses on clipping DNA vectors.
"I like your pocket square," Belle teases in a drowsy voice, and Gold flinches slightly, clearly not expecting her to be awake. His hands flutter in his lap, as if unsure whether to close the laptop or not, and for the first time Belle considers he might be as unsettled by the situation as she is.
"Don't worry, I won't steal away any corporate secret," she adds, accompanying the words with a smile to let him know she speaks in jest.
"Welcome back to the land of the living. Well, to the airspace of the flying," Gold returns her smile. "How are you feeling?"
"Much better, thank you," Belle nods, flushing slightly at the memory of her earlier tantrum. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to distract you from your work," she continues as she shifts in her seat into a more dignifying position.
"I wasn't working. Alas, no corporate secret to be stolen. I was..." Gold pauses, uncertain. "Well, writing, actually. It's a... hobby of mine." He shrugs, as if he's just let out the least interesting piece of information, yet no better words could have been spoken to get Belle's full attention.
"Oh..." is all she can say as her eyes widen in surprise and she finds herself fighting the urge to peek towards his laptop, curiosity slowly eroding propriety.
"Yes, it seems I have found my muse the moment I set foot in this plane", Gold whispers conspiratorially, leaning towards her again, and Belle thinks her blush must quite match his magenta post-its.
"Hence the 'pocket squares'," he continues. "Inspiration has a way of striking when you least expect it, in the most peculiar of places, and one must be prepared to embrace it."
Belle briefly wonders if he's just said that he'd like to embrace her in a peculiar place.
"Well, I do love books. It's a... hobby of mine," she grins as she returns his words. "Maybe one day I would get to read you?" She forwards, tentative but hopeful.
"Ah, well... you see, I'm a difficult man to read."
"I've always liked a challenge," Belle retorts, one of her brows raising in defiance of its own accord. She can't help but notice how Gold's eyes stray to her curls as they spread atop her blue blanket when she shakes her head and smiles at him.
"Aye, that you did," he says, barely a whisper.
The two flight companions spend the next hour or so in comfortable silence, with Gold tapping lightly into his computer and Belle admiring the clouds sword-fighting their way into the sunset. Every once and again Belle would steal a glimpse of the man beside her, his eyebrows no longer burrowed and looking more at ease than she has ever seen him.
Although her stomach rolls slightly at the faintest smell of cooked food, Belle can't help but feel grateful when the cabin crew begin serving dinner and Gold is forced to put away his laptop. She was starting to feel jealous of the warm electronic thing perched so comfortably in his lap. She just wants to talk to him some more. The man is a mystery, and one, she realizes, she would like to uncover.
Belle is determined to refuse her meal and see that evil little cart away as soon as possible, when Gold surprises her once more.
"Thank you," he says as he picks up the tray containing his dinner from a warm eyed older lady who Belle thinks looks more fit to own the Bed and Breakfast in a small town than travel the skies. "Do you perhaps have something lighter for the lady," he inquires.
"We have just the thing, Sir," the woman replies and she fumbles inside her cart, quickly emerging with another tray containing a generous salad, bread rolls and three kinds of cheese. Belle receives it sheepishly and voices her thanks to both her attendant and her boss, who appears just as eager to attend to her needs. It's not long after Belle tentatively digs into her salad and unwraps a Gouda cheese that she realizes her appetite has returned. A quick glance over at Gold's meal is enough for her to eye the pickle accompanying his steak, and for her mouth to water.
"You can have it, dear," he says, startling her. "It's just a pickle," Gold chuckles.
"I know it's just a pickle!" Belle retorts, biting her lip, embarrassed that she's been caught in the act of spying his food. "But thank you," she grins and grabs the proffered item gingerly. It makes a delicious combination with her cheese, and Belle sighs in contentment. When her eyes drift back to Gold, he's staring longingly at her mouth, and Belle begins to feel remorse for taking it from him. Or maybe it's not the pickle that he longs for at all... She almost chokes on her water.
"Would you like some coffee or tea?" a passing by steward inquires, saving Belle from giving the notion further thought.
"Tea," Belle and Gold reply simultaneously, and they look at each other, grinning.
"Three cubes of sugar and a liberal amount of milk?" Gold asks.
"Yes," Belle replies, surprised. "How does he know?"
Belle quietly sips her tea, loosing herself in thoughts of "what if"s. It's not like their lab's never ending supply of teas and chocolates comes from... No, it couldn't possibly...
Another hour later and Belle returns from the ladies room to find Gold asleep in his chair. She tries to carefully move past him, but such attempts of hers are almost always futile. Thankfully, the accidental nudge she gives his knee when she trips over his cane and almost lands in his lap doesn't manage to awake him. Sustaining her weight on the arms of his chair, her face inches from his, Belle blinks, steering away those peculiar feelings that threaten to resurface. She manages to get herself safely back into her seat, and she scoops up the blue blanket, wrapping it around Gold's shoulders. He looks so different from the man at the office, here and now, so different from the man all her friends are terrified of. She's never been scared of him. Angry, yes, feeling like she could strangle him with her bare hands, but never afraid. Belle smiles as her own eyelids flutter closed as well.
The next time she wakes up, it's to the wailing of a baby coming from one of the seats in front of them, to his mother's desperate soothing attempts and to the grumbling of other passengers. Belle stands and peeks over the seats, scientifically assessing the situation.
"Excuse me, would you mind if we try something?" She asks the child's mother, who turns to look at Belle pleadingly. "My little niece is fretful on long trips as well, but she always relaxes when I read to her."
There's a shimmer of hope in the young mother's frayed eyes, and her voice trembles when she speaks to Belle. "Yes, please, I-I... It's his first trip by plane," she says apologetically.
"Well, from the way I reacted earlier, you might say it's also my first plane ride," Belle smiles self-deprecatingly in an attempt to soothe her. It earns her a low chuckle from Gold. She quickly rummages the bag under her chair and bounces back up victoriously with a book in her hand. Ever so gently, the mother passes the little bundle from her arms to Belle's, who sits back in her chair, flicking through the pages in search of her favourite story.
"Do you always carry fairytale books with you, Ms. French?" Gold asks, merely a whisper.
"Only this book, Mr. Gold," she smiles, shaking her head. "Only this book."
It's not like she's out of practice, she has read to her niece only a couple of months ago, when she and her family went to the mountains and the winding roads made the little one queasy, but this little boy simply wouldn't stop crying!
"Why don't you let me try?" Gold asks, startling her. He's spreading his arms to take the baby from her, and she must have made quite a face because he freezes half motion and adds a puzzled "What?"
"N-nothing... here," Belle carefully slips the little one from her grasp into Gold's, who cradles him gently. No more than several minutes of Gold reading to him later, and the baby relaxes in his arms, his desperate cries turning to whimpers, then to soft murmurs. Blushing, Belle thinks she would probably react the same, were she the object of Gold's attention. She has never heard his voice sound like this, so warm and deep and loving, and the little one seems to be just as impressed as she is because he reaches up a tiny hand and brushes his fingers against Gold's nose. That earns him a giggle from both Gold and Belle. She can't keep track of the time they lay there, the little one safely tucked in Gold's arms, Gold's voice pleasantly vibrating in her ears. And the baby's. Hers and the baby's, of course. His accent seems to thicken with every mile they fly over the Atlantic, and at this rate, Belle thinks, she wouldn't be able to understand him at all when they reach the U.K.. The intimidating, quirky businessman had his appeal, definitely, but Belle finds herself enthralled by this casual, warm and attentive version of himself.
Gold sighs, content with the little one now peacefully sleeping in his arms, before returning him to the welcoming, grateful arms of his mother. Then, Ms. French and Mr. Gold find themselves talking until sunrise, quiet whispers as to not wake the baby or the others. "It seems there are some perks to flying after all," Belle thinks.