Author's Note: This was written for a friend after this season's episode, "The Crocodile," so beware spoilers. Otherwise, enjoy!
Disclaimer: As if. Unfortunately, I wasn't quite clever or quick enough to own these characters.
Belle knew that given a choice, Rumpelstiltskin would have preferred to keep their date private. She had seen the way he swaggered around town; he liked to remind others of his power. But romance, she supposed, was a weakness, and he would rather not demonstrate it in public. Until her disappearance last week, no one in town had even known that such romance existed. The softening of his eyes, that small genuine smile—those were for when the two of them were alone.
Unfortunately for him, Granny's was the only place to get a good burger. Besides, as long as they were starting over, Belle wanted to do things right.
Rumpel was gracious enough to keep most of his displeasure to himself, though she knew it was there. She also knew that he was not entirely unhappy with the situation, because they were together and talking amiably. He had even given her his arm, though with his limp, support was a mutual effort rather than that of a gentleman leading a lady. Belle was all right with that.
They certainly attracted attention. Everyone in the diner looked up and kept looking as they entered. Rumpel ignored them and made his way to a booth in the corner. Belle gave a friendly smile to Ruby, who was watching them and chewing at her lip. "Here we are," Rumpel said, and Belle slid into the booth with a slight bounce. The pancakes had been delicious; she couldn't wait for her hamburger.
Ruby was there with menus and a smile almost before they had sat down. "Welcome to Granny's," she announced, a bit too loudly. She didn't even have to speak over the other patrons; the diner had gone quiet, and the other diners were murmuring at best. Ruby slapped a menu down in front of each of them. "What can I get you?"
Rumpel's eyebrows twitched upward as he looked at Ruby. He almost seemed mildly impressed, his focused, glittering expression the one he wore when doing careful calculations and coming up with results he liked. "Water."
Ruby winked at Belle. "Sweet tea again?"
Belle had tried soda over the weekend and decided that she already knew what she loved best. "Oh, yes, please."
"Back in a sec." Ruby sauntered off, and slowly the conversation throughout the diner returned to normal.
"So," Belle began, rocking forward a bit and clasping her hands in front of her on the table, "are you getting a hamburger, too?"
"Of course," Rumpel replied quietly. His face was turning smug, and she wasn't sure whether it boded ill for her. "The question is which variety."
"Which…" At her curious look, he flipped her menu over and tapped a section. Belle's eyes widened. "Oh." Granny's did not just have burgers; it had—she counted—six kinds of burgers, and they all sounded wonderful. She bit her lip as she read the descriptions.
Rumpel leaned forward to watch as she looked through them. He pointed to one. "Barbecue is a sweet sauce, almost with the flavor of smoked meats," he began. He was talking very quietly, audible only to her. "Buffalo is made from spicy peppers."
Belle shook her head. "It's hard to pick which to get," she admitted.
"Whichever one you want," he replied smoothly, "though I have tried the mushroom Swiss, and it's decent."
Belle took a while to mull them over, with Rumpel's occasional explanations along the way. Despite his mild insistence that she order something fancy, however, Belle decided firmly on a plain cheeseburger. She would have time to try out the varieties later. When Ruby returned with water and a sweet tea, slice of lemon delicately perched on the rim, Belle ordered with barely contained excitement. "That's the normal kind, right?"
"Plain and simple," Ruby confirmed. She looked to Rumpelstiltskin, and they had another moment that Belle decided they were using to size each other up. "And you?"
Rumpel handed her both menus. "The Swiss and mushroom burger… please," he added. Belle blinked, but he did not seem mocking in the slightest, and after giving him a hard look, Ruby nodded and left again. Belle opted not to comment on any of this. It was easy enough to put together; they had both helped save Belle when she had been kidnapped, and it seemed to have led to some kind of understanding. Belle felt that her pointing it out would only destroy any progress they'd made, so she kept silent. After a moment, Rumpel folded his hands in a mirror image of hers and asked, "How is the library?"
Belle beamed. "It's wonderful. I've been cleaning up, and there's so much in there. I wish I could open it by next week, but there's no way I'll have everything organized by then."
"Get someone to help you out," he suggested. His voice was warm and encouraging, though his expression stayed aloof and even.
Her mouth tightened a bit. Even for the short time she had been out on her own, this had been a source of frustration. "But I don't have a way to pay anyone."
"I never said anything about paid work," he countered, taking a sip of his water. "People would likely volunteer. We haven't had a library in a long time."
"Technically, we've never had a library."
Belle pursed her lips in exasperation. "I mean do you really think people would want to help?"
"But why are you so sure?" she pressed.
He gave her a smile then, but it was the closed, certain expression she had seen him use on others; it wasn't her smile. "Trust me; they will." He took another thoughtful sip of water and continued, "It's exactly the sort of community project that people will jump at."
Belle hardly knew anyone yet, but he could be right. She would ask Ruby about it later. Her leg began bouncing as she considered the possibility of opening up the library in a mere week. She released a breath and pushed her hair back, forcing her thoughts back to the present. "I hope so."
He softened slightly around the edges—and then Ruby was beside their table, saying, "Here you go." By the time Belle looked back, Rumpelstiltskin was accepting his dinner with cool cordiality. Belle frowned, but was distracted as Ruby slid the cheeseburger under her nose. The smell alone made her mouth water. "Eat up," Ruby commanded, and left again, shouting "Keep your shirt on!" at someone at the counter.
Rumpel gestured grandly at her plate. "Go on, then."
Belle smiled and did just that. She picked up the cheeseburger with both hands and bit into bread and cheese and meat and tomato, and it was fantastic. She looked to Rumpel, eyes wide with pure, simple delight.
For a brief moment, watching him, she caught her smile, just a flicker of light across his face. It was always small and sincere and accidental. She granted him a warm look in return, and he quickly smoothed his face over, putting his carefully composed demeanor of private amusement back into place.
"It's just me, Rumpel," she murmured. She hated his haughty barrier; she wanted the smile back.
His lips parted in a subtle grimace, and his gaze drifted out to the crowd in the diner. "No, it's not."
For the first time that evening, Belle understood how deeply on edge he was. She could see in his rigid posture and tight jaw that every other patron in Granny's was someone else to guard against. Even so, she couldn't bring herself to feel bad for bringing him here. He was still clinging to power, just of a different kind. He was afraid of losing his reputation as the formidable figure in control, of appearing vulnerable in front of them. He was trying, she knew; after all, he had agreed to come. Belle just had to convince him to be brave. She reached across the table and grasped his hand, drawing his attention to her. "Yes," she insisted quietly, "it is."
Rumpel met her eyes, almost as if he could hear her silent encouragement—pay attention to me, not them—and hesitated before twisting his hand around to squeeze hers in return. It was a careful gesture, gentle as everything he did with her, but she suddenly felt her hand was his lifeline. And so she held on, fingers curled comfortably within his.
She used her other hand, though, to pick up the burger and take another wonderful bite. Rumpel's eyes crinkled in amusement. "I take it you've discovered another modern treasure."
"Mm," she agreed. There were so many flavors in it all at once. "How's yours?"
He obediently started on his burger and nodded as he chewed. "As good as usual."
Belle did not doubt it. If a regular cheeseburger tasted this amazing, she couldn't imagine the others. Actually… by the time she was halfway finished with her dinner, she found herself eyeing his. He smirked, and it was not a sharp-edged weapon, but something light and smug. "Would you like to try it?"
Belle smiled sheepishly. "Yes, if you don't mind."
He never did. He released her hand in favor of his fork and knife and carefully sliced off a bit of his hamburger, presenting it to her with a flourish. She saw him struggle almost imperceptibly, but he did not close off; he accepted her thanks with a hesitant hint of that smile. It was a good burger, too. It was different, earthy. She could see why he liked it.
"So how are the… accommodations?" he asked, nodding toward the outside, presumably to the library.
"I like them," she declared. She hesitated, but as long as she was pushing him to be honest, she ought to be, too. "It… takes a bit of getting used to, though. I've never lived on my own before, not really."
Rumpel's expression became thoroughly controlled again, but she could not blame him. His cautious air darkened. Likely his thoughts had gone to the same place hers had: her twenty-eight years of isolation. Normally, the other memories crowded it out. She didn't want him remembering that any more than she wanted to herself. This time, it was he who reached for her hand. She shook off the gloom and continued, "But the space is nice. Eventually, I'll figure out how to set it up just how I want it."
"Good." He watched her carefully until she brightened up again. Only then did he lean back, hand still tangled with hers, and get Ruby's attention. "I'll take the check."
Belle didn't really have a choice, but that didn't mean she had to like it. Rumpel had provided everything for a long time, and she wanted to stand on her own, but she couldn't yet.
Her disappointment did not go unnoticed. "Don't worry, Belle," he assured her with a smile. "You can pay me back later."
Belle blew out a breath, mouth twisting wryly. He said that now, but she knew that as soon as she had the money, he would conveniently forget about this incident, or ask to be repaid with some ludicrous favor that did nothing at all. The irony was not lost on her; she was likely the only person here to whom Rumpelstiltskin would give anything freely, and yet she would rather owe him properly. As if sensing her thoughts, Rumpel caught her eye and his smile widened, toothy and teasing. She couldn't help but giggle back at him.
As far as fresh starts went, it was a good one. By the time they rose to leave, he had almost relaxed into the Rumpelstiltskin she knew, and the evening had turned much warmer for it.
"Shall I walk you home?" he asked gallantly.
Belle looped her arm through his in that particular way they had developed, one that would allow each to help the other along, and took a moment to mull it over. She could feel the stares of everyone in the diner at their backs, but though Rumpel had his cane in a white-knuckled grip and his shoulders were braced in an apprehensive line, he stood straight and tall and unmoving beside her.
"We can take our time," Belle suggested. She got the smile—her smile—in response, and arm in arm, they strolled out of the diner and into the night.