A fic that I wrote when I should have been studying for an exam, after just skipping through the episode. Now obviously shamelessly AU. Wicked Beauty if you squint.

i.

My son is away, but he's safe, Belle keeps reminding herself. He's safe, he's safe, he's safe.

She says it like mantra, repeats it every waking hour, every time she opens her eyes, every time she catches sight of Gold's pawnshop through the library's windows, because if she doesn't, she might forget why she ever considered giving him away.

(It might have been a right thing to do, but guilt and grief are gnawing on her soul, filling her stomach with iron, making her hands tremble and her eyes prick and there is a dull pain in her chest when she once thought her heart was that never goes away.)

She is scared of living in this town, where he is, alone, again. So Emma takes her in and lets her stay however long she wants, and does not pressure, but makes her breakfast every morning and a sandwich to eat later and Belle eats it because she feels that she owes Emma for her kindness. She doesn't speak much, these days, except when someone asks her something outright or her expertise on books and spells is needed.

She spends her days at Emma's, too tired to move from bed, too afraid to go outside. After a while both Emma and Killian start looking at her with concern, or pity, and Belle makes a great effort and joins them for lunch at Granny's.

She does not speak a word, but Granny pours her two free coffees with extra cream and pushes a plate of waffles towards her and Emma and Killian exchange somewhat relieved glances when they think Belle isn't looking. After that, Belle takes to visiting Granny's every day, either for tea and waffles or a really strong drink. Part of her is afraid that she will make excessive drinking a habit; the other part thinks she should, because being drunk or hungover at least means she gets to forget for a while, and there is nothing in this world that Belle wants more.

One evening, when she feels courageous (and a tiny bit drunk), she summons all of her false bravado, turns to Emma and says,

"I think I might go back to the library soon."

Later she thinks Emma ought to have said something, but instead, she only nodded and replied,

"I'll have Regina put up some spells in case he dares to show up."

And the mention of her (ex)husband and the (estranged) father of her (lost) child is a bit too much, so Belle pours herself another shot and successfully manages to turn rest of the night into a blur.

ii.

Being in the library again is not so bad, it turns out, because after a brief adjustment period, when everyone goes to check on her, she is mostly alone and has the place to herself, because, apparently, no one in this town ever reads.

So she sorts and catalogues and writes recommendation lists, and in between she loses herself to some pretty goddamn depressing poetry. A stack of poems grows and grows on her counter as the happier books slowly gather dust.

Outside, life happens: the heroes defeat the Evil Queen and Rumplestiltskin escapes, somehow. Belle does not really want to know what this means; Emma assures her that he can't hurt her and that he is far away, but then again, it does not bring Gideon back to her.

("We don't know where Blue Fairy is," Regina says, very quietly, sitting next to Emma on the couch opposite Belle's armchair. "We are looking for her, Belle, I promise, but…"

She does not finish, but Belle knows. Rumplestiltskin had searched for Baelfire for so, so long and found him just in time to witness his death. Her son could be anywhere, anywhere in multiple lands and universes and Belle is so tired and just wants him here, in her arms.)

At the library she can at least sometimes pretend it never happened, she can lose herself either to books or to the pain they bring her, but in any case, it's better than thinking what might have been.

iii.

One day in December the rain has just started to pour down when the door opens and rapidly closes with a loud thud. Belle leaps from her place behind the counter and sees Zelena, of all people, bending over a stroller and murmuring something in hushed voice to her daughter.

Belle's breath must have caught in her throat, because Zelena actually turns and looks at her apologetically, consciously or unconsciously trying to stand in a way that blocks Belle's view of the child.

"I'm sorry," she apologizes, "but it's a downpour out there and I'm not… I don't have an umbrella, for one, and I just…"

"It's okay," Belle interrupts her, a bit too eagerly, a bit too loud. That's the result of being alone for so long. She puts on her bravest face and soldiers on, "at least it's warm in here. Come and sit, I think it's not going to clear for a solid while."

She doesn't try to smile, doesn't bother; what she really wants is to take a peek into the stroller, to see little Robin, and she is afraid of doing so at the same time. Zelena must sense this, but she slowly pushes the stroller forward and sinks down into the chair Belle offers her.

Silence ensues.

"How… how is she?" Belle asks, hesitantly, her voice on the verge of breaking.

Zelena eyes her carefully.

"She's fine," she finally answers. "Been a bit under the weather, lately. I've ran out of stories to get her to sleep."

Belle smiles at the same time as her heart breaks slowly. Zelena switches positions and Belle can see her daughter at last – the cutest thing in this realm, with her cheeks pink and her wide eyes roaming over everything and her tiny chubby fist gripping the edge of her pink blanket.

"She is so beautiful," Belle says, longingly, without really meaning too.

Another long silence follows, and Zelena is so concentrated her magic almost condenses in the air and a faint smell of mint floats between them. But then she asks, very quietly,

"Do you want to hold her?"

And when Belle is too choked up to talk, she carefully places Robin in her arms and watches over them like a hawk, at least for the first five minutes. Then she spots Belle's kettle and makes them two cups of tea and sits there and lets the heartbroken shell of a woman hold her child and live a few precious minutes of fantasy.

What is surprising is that Zelena comes back.

Sometimes she's alone, but more often than not she's with Robin and Belle has learned to wait for those visits. She is allowed to play with the child and read to her, or sing to her, if she's feeling particularly brave. Zelena watches or is somewhere in the vicinity, rummaging through dusted shelves, claiming to look for a book that is never there.

If this is her version of pity, Belle is too weak to refuse it.

In January, Zelena starts bringing coffee and cookies to those play dates and Belle doesn't know what to think of it, but when she asks, Zelena just shrugs.

"Think of it as a payment for reading all those stories to her," she only says, but it makes Belle wonder.

"I didn't read a lot, when I was a child," Zelena admits one day, nibbling on her cookie. "I was a farmer's daughter and they didn't really care whether I could read at all. So I didn't. I learned myself when I was older, to read books about magic."

"So you haven't read much apart from them?" Belle asks, kindly.

Zelena is too proud to answer, but she doesn't deny it, either, and so Belle comes up with a plan.

Doing all those lists has paid off, finally, and when Zelena drops by a week later, Belle pushes a stack of books in front of her.

"You didn't use to read, but I thought perhaps you might want to do so now."

Zelena falls silent for a very long time and Belle starts panicking, thinking perhaps all of it was a huge mistake that would make Zelena – the proud, complicated, troubled Zelena – walk out from the library and take both her child and the silver lining in Belle's life with her.

But then Zelena slowly puts her arms around the stack and pulls the books closer and smiles a smile Belle has never seen on her before.

"Thank you," she says and Belle thinks that she might need to mark the day in her calendar.

It gets a bit easier, then. It's not a huge improvement, but it's enough, for now. At Granny's Belle settles practically only for tea and waffles, and she starts talking to Emma, and to Henry, and sometimes even Regina, although conversations with the latter are a curious experience.

"My sister hasn't been pestering you, has she?" Regina asks bluntly, squeezing herself into the booth next to Emma.

Belle looks up from her food and blinks twice. Then she resumes smearing whipped cream evenly on the waffles.

"No, she hasn't," she replies. "Quite the contrary."

Regina isn't convinced.

"Be careful, Belle. She is not always who she seems to be."

And Belle laughs mirthlessly, because she has heard this once before – and ignored it - and after True Love and curses and spells and separations and abandonment look how well it has turned out.

"Don't worry, Regina, I'm not falling in love with her anytime soon."

She turns all of her attention to the waffles and doesn't seen the confused look that crosses Regina's features or the glance she shares with Emma a while later.

"That's fine, then," Emma says carefully and shots Regina a pointed glance.

(Later, Belle hears them arguing in hushed voices outside Emma's house, but the next day she pretends she didn't. Regina storms off red-faced and when Emma enters the kitchen, she squares her shoulders as if she was uncomfortable. But Zelena doesn't stop coming and no one says a word more.)

Gold's house is big and empty. It's been gathering dust for months now, and no one in Storybrooke has dared to enter it, or discuss it, or, for that matter, acknowledge that it still exist.

One Sunday Belle wanders through the town alone, lost in thoughts, and her feet lead her there without the brain's interruption. She doesn't really know where she is until she recognizes the familiar pattern of cracks on the pavement and looks up sharply – and there it is, the mansion, towering over her, so large and dark and grim. There is a strange energy surrounding it – it screams danger, but it also promises great adventure, and seduction, and Belle still remembers it as a place when love once was. So she enters, hesitantly, a bit scared. She climbs the steps leading to the porch and pushes the front door open. She doesn't need the key – no one really locks their doors here; what's the point if everyone knows you? – and when she steps over the threshold she's suddenly hit with a wave of panic, because what if someone actually wandered down here and took over the house?

But no, it's empty, she learns after a while. Everything looks so abandoned and unused. She moves past the living room and the kitchen, remembering places where she used to sit and read and eat and even have sex. Memories come and go and Belle finds it hard to stay focused. It's cold; her breath turns to mist, and when she thinks she should head back to Emma's soon, she finds herself at the bottom of the stairs.

She climbs them, and memories flood her again; more intimate, this time, the ones that she made when she was still drowsy from sleep and caught a glimpse of sunrise through the window; or when she was on her way to bed, sometimes with Rumplestiltskin's hand in hers. Following a familiar path, she reaches the bedroom, its door open wide, and then shakes her head and moves past it, until she reaches another room.

It used to be a guest room, although they never really had any guests, so it was mostly kept locked to save the heat – but now the door is open and something, the unfamiliar wallpaper, catches Belle's eye, so she goes in.

And freezes.

It takes her brain a while to catch up and make sense of what she's seeing; the pale colors, lots of soft edges, pillows and blankets and teddy bears and in the center of it, a large, wooden crib.

And Belle, against all her instincts that would have her break down and weep on the ground, turns on her heel and flees, away from this house, and she doesn't stop running until she reaches the main street.

iv.

All is well until it suddenly isn't.

Belle has started having nightmares again, the ones that leave her terrified and cold and sweaty with her heart pounding in her ears. She has woken Emma at least twice with her screaming and she's back to ordering vodka on the rocks in the chilly evenings after work.

She's repeating her mantra religiously. The words are engraved in her brain, on her tongue, they are in every cell of her body.

He is safe, he is safe, he is safe, he is safe, he is…

He is away.

Suddenly she stops sorting through the books and holds still, her outstretched palm trembling, her body shaking with violent sobs. Her lungs are heavy; she bends over, trying to catch a breath, and then slides onto the floor and then she cries and cries and cries and cannot force herself to stop.

She doesn't hear the door opening or the quick steps or the rustling of clothes when someone kneels next to her. Someone puts an arm around her and Belle wants to recoil, to run, to scream, but she suddenly recognizes a faint smell of mint and a heap of red hair and she falls into Zelena's embrace.

Zelena rubs her back and holds her and, blessedly, does not murmur sweet nothings because Belle would murder anybody who told her that it's okay or that it can be fixed or that it would be alright, because none of this can ever be alright and there is nothing in this world that could fix it.

Sometime after, when the crying is over, Belle lays exhausted with her head in Zelena's lap and Zelena runs her fingers through Belle's hair. Silence falls around them, thick, heavy, and suddenly Zelena, the Wicked Witch, says,

"I will help you get him back, Belle, I promise."

And although Belle has no reason to trust her more than she trusts Regina, she burrows her nose deeper into Zelena's close and inhales her scent and allows herself to be coddled and treated like a child instead of a mother she didn't have a chance to be.