With a relieved sigh, Isabelle French pushed the book in her hand neatly back into place on the library shelf, satisfied that the last of the day's returns had finally been put back where they belonged. Her legs ached from climbing up and down the ladder for what felt like hours.
Pushing back a heavy strand of her chestnut hair off her forehead, Izzy couldn't help but smile, it was close to closing time and that meant she could quite easily curl up into a quiet corner and read some more of her current book. It was part of the reason she loved this job so much, it gave her time to retreat into the literary world, a world of stories and dreams that more often than not felt realer to her than the world she currently inhabited.
Sighing, Izzy folded the small step ladder closed, that was a fact she would definitely be keeping to herself, she'd not long been realised from the mad house and she had no desire to go back. Closing her eyes she tried to remember why she'd even been put in there in the first place, she couldn't remember, but she'd seen her file, seen the words 'dangerous delusions' in printed black ink. Even now she was unsure as to why – if she was that dangerous – she had been released, after all nothing about her had changed, grateful for her freedom but confused by the sudden u-turn.
She could remember the mayor standing smiling eerily at her, her father's red rimmed eyes as he'd clutched her to him, apologizing profusely for having put her in there. She'd hugged him back of course, but in the back of her mind it had all felt wrong, if he was so remorseful then why had he never visited her? Why had he even left her there to rot in the first place? And that woman, with her cold eyes, the same eyes that had stared at her through that metal slit unnerved her. Still it was said woman who had given her this job, so she had to at least put on a show of gratitude.
Running her hand along the spines of the books on the shelves as she walked along, Izzy gave another soft sigh. It felt good to have her freedom back, she just wished that everyone in town didn't look at her as though she were about to start speaking in tongues, it would be nice to have just one person who treated her like a normal person, instead of with kid gloves.
There was the sound of uneven footsteps from nearby, and Belle straightened, stepping out between the shelves, she brushed some dust off her neat blue dress as she asked, "Do you need any help there?"
"Perhaps a recommendation."
Her head shot up at the sound of that calm, clear voice and she found herself looking straight at the town's tyrant, Mr Gold, his dark eyes watching her carefully, almost scrutinizing her. He was leaning on his cane, and despite the calmness in his stance there was something...uneasy about his manner, almost as though he were nervous. Her lips quirked in a smile at that thought, nothing made that man nervous, and she doubted that being in the presence of the town lunatic really affected him. She cleared her throat, "A recommendation?" she echoed. What on earth would Mr Gold he want her opinion on?
He looked vaguely amused by her response. "Yes, I thought as the town's library you might be able to recommend a book for me."
Izzy stared at him as though he'd grown an extra head, no-one else who came in here really spoke to her, they eyed her nervously as they checked out their books, they certainly never stayed to indulge in conversation, never mind seek her opinion. "Um...well I suppose that would depend on what sort of book you're looking for."
Gold gave a small shrug. "I'm not sure."
Well that was helpful, Izzy thought, unable to help herself from rolling her eyes. "That wasn't the most useful answer," she told him unthinkingly.
His mouth curved into a proper smile. "Well I didn't come in here with the intention of making your job an easy one, dear."
"Sorry, that was rude of me," she replied, she really shouldn't be scaring away the one person who appeared to be treating her as though she were a normal person.
"No, it was honest, I appreciate honesty," he told her candidly.
Izzy gave a small smile. "It was probably a bit of both. So if you'd like we could pretend I never said it and start over again."
He shook his head slowly. "Absolutely not, first impressions cannot be erased after all, so it would be a most pointless endeavour."
She wasn't sure why, but the thought of having not made a good first impression on the man standing in front of her bothered her somewhat. "Should I be nervous about what you think of me then?" she asked him.
"No, you shouldn't."
Her shoulders relaxed. "Oh good."
His already slightly lined face creased into a look of momentary confusion. "Why would my opinion mean so much to you?" he asked her, his voice quiet, almost searching as his dark eyes probed hers. He was looking at her as though he were trying to decide if he recognized her from somewhere.
"I don't know," she shrugged. "Maybe because you're the only person who doesn't look nervous around me, the only person who doesn't look as though they're looking for the nearest exit."
He chuckled at that. "Strange, that's the effect I have on most people as well."
"Imagine if we teamed up," she joked unthinkingly. "No doubt we'd have the entire town running in the opposite direction." His smile fell almost instantly and for a moment he looked haunted, lost even. "I'm sorry," she stuttered out. "I didn't-"
"Don't apologize," he told her somewhat sharply as he held up his hand in an attempt to stop her words. "You have nothing to apologize for."
The silence stretched out between them, and Izzy felt as though the space between them was almost crackling with electricity. "Fiction or non fiction?" she suddenly asked, and on seeing his surprised look clarified, "For your book."
"Ah, definitely fiction," he told her, his fingers tapping off the gold plated handle of his cane. For a man who wasn't particularly tall he had surprisingly long fingers, and she had to drag his eyes away from them as he added, "A bit of escapism." His mouth quirked in that strange half smile of his at that remark.
"Well there's quite a lot I could suggest, and you don't have any idea what type of story you want?"
"One with a happy ending," he replied after a moment's thought.
"I suppose that cuts out a few possibilities. Although I'm still not sure...walk with me," she suggested suddenly.
"Excuse me?" he asked, looking at her in surprise.
"I just thought that if we walk around the aisles something suitable might present itself," she explained. "That is if you don't mind."
He stepped forward, his cane clunking slightly against the floor. "Why would I mind?" he muttered.
"Not everyone would be so keen to spend so long in the presence of a mad woman," Izzy replied, only half joking.
"Do not call yourself mad!" He spat suddenly, and for the first time she saw a flash of the temper that very obviously petrified the rest of the town.
"If it's the truth..." she trailed off at the look in his eyes.
He stepped further forward, now encroaching on her personal space. "It is not the truth," Gold told her, his eyes blazing in unrestrained fury now. "You are not mad, Belle."
She blinked suddenly at that shortened version of her name. "Belle?" she echoed. "No-one ever calls me that."
Gold blinked, shaking his head almost as though he were coming back to himself. "I apologize."
"No, don't," she told him quickly, grabbing his hand as he made to step away from her. He stared at their touching hands, his expression almost pained, he looked like a man who'd lost it all. "Do you...I mean...do we know each other?" she asked him hesitantly.
"Not exactly," came the cryptic reply. "But trust me when I tell you that you are not mad."
"I feel it sometimes," she confided suddenly. "I feel like this world isn't real, that I...we...everybody should be somewhere else."
"That doesn't make you mad."
"I think everyone else in this town would disagree."
He gave a low chuckle. "They wouldn't dare disagree with me, not ever."
That made her smile. "Even if you announced the world was made of blue cheese."
"Even then, Belle" he confirmed, his smile reaching his eyes now.
He'd done it again, shortened her name, and the way he said it, with such warmth it made her feel as though he had known her and had truly cared for her...or at least she reminded him of that someone. As though he realised his mistake, he shook his head. "My apologies once again, Miss French."
"You don't need to apologise, I quite like it. Belle," she repeated the name, it felt somewhat familiar, more right than anything else had these last few months. The name felt right and the hand that was clasped in hers felt right as well, although she could not understand why. She stepped forward, her free hand coming up to press against his cheek, and she felt his breath catch. "I like you," she mumbled, almost to herself as she stepped forward and brushed her lips against his.
His hand tangled in her hair, angling her head, drawing her closer to him as her mouth opened under his. Her thoughts became blank for a moment, disappearing entirely for a brief second before everything came flooding back in bright technicolor, memories that made no sense and yet she knew without a shadow of a doubt that they were real. "Rumpelstiltskin," she murmured against his mouth.
He drew back from her, his fingers ghosting over her cheek. "You remember," he breathed out, a note of pure wonder in his voice.
"Only when you kissed me," she admitted.
"I thought I'd lost you," Gold confided heavily. "For so long I thought that I would never see you again. I love you, Belle."
"And I love you," she told him, laughing almost giddily.
"It won't be easy," he warned her. "No-one else remembers-"
"But we do," she interrupted. "And that's enough for me. For as long as this curse lasts we'll make the most of the time we have together, living a normal life, promise me that."
"I'll probably still do things you don't like, my magic...it won't stay away forever and I won't...can't let it."
She frowned at his words. "You may need to explain that particular sentence later," she told him.
"I will, and I promise you that for as long as I can I'll give you that normal life."
"Deal," she smiled. "And as someone once told me, you can't break a deal."
"Very true, my dear," he replied, running his thumb over her cheekbone and staring at her as though she were the most important thing on the planet. To him she was, and she knew that now.
"So in the meantime why don't we get to work on our own happy ending, that was what you were looking for, wasn't it?"