The 'Welcome to Storybrooke' sign looms ever closer as the Cadillac speeds down the asphalt, benign and blue among the trees, and she nearly forgets to breathe.
Rumple stares straight ahead, lips thin and hands on the wheel. Focused. Determined. He wears his collar open and his sleeves rolled up, and Bae's shawl draped over his shoulders despite the heat of the summer morning. The windows are open and the rushing air smells of forest.
Belle adjusts her purse on her lap and grips her necklace tightly.
Nothing bad is going to happen. Not this time. Rum is here (and Hook is not), and Emma's armed some dwarves with memory potion and revolvers, forcing Cora back into hiding. She's in a car with Rumple. She's wearing a talisman around her neck.
But Belle still has nightmares, even if they don't keep her up half the night anymore.
And Belle still flinches at car doors and thunder, because they remind her of gunshots and flooding asylum cells.
Belle still carries her battered copy of Jane Eyre in her purse, just in case.
She may smile more than Jane—but she remembers fear just as intimately.
The car begins to slow. Rumple pulls off to the side of the road, and parks. When he twists the key and the engine shuts off, the world condenses to her own slow breathing and the sound of the breeze rustling the leaves.
He twists in his seat to face her. "Are you alright?"
"Was it that obvious?"
He quirks a smile. "Of course not," he says. "I'm merely observant."
She laughs and eases her hand away her necklace. The familiar golden braid now loops through a hole in a polished shard of white and blue teacup. Her white knuckled grip on the porcelain leaves a small indent in her palm. (Her most treasured object, to preserve her most treasured memories).
"If you've changed your mind, I understand. I'll be back in a few weeks."
"Don't think you're getting rid of me that easily," she says.
He chuckles. They sit a moment in the calm of the morning, in the hot sun and warm breeze. In the dancing leaf shadows and birdsong.
She reaches over to the steering wheel, and covers his hand with hers. "What about you? Are you alright?"
"Fine," he says, though his eyes narrow (as if at an enemy) when he turns his gaze back to the road.
"Really fine? Or just sort of fine?"
A long pause.
She gives his hand a squeeze. "It'll be alright."
"How do you know?"
"Because if Bae sees what I see, he'll have to love you."
"And if he doesn't?"
"Then I'll just have to love you for the both of us."
Belle leans forward, only slightly hindered by her seatbelt, and presses her lips to Rumple's cheek. He smiles and kisses her hand. She laughs and pulls away, and fishes his sunglasses from the glove box when he turns on the engine.
The Cadillac crosses the town line at 8:15 AM, ringing with whirling-dervish hope, and her name on his lips like the sound of a