The First

Chapter 6: Slip Up

Belle looked up as the little bell above the shop door jingled. She'd been sneaking in a read of 'Pride and Prejudice', which she folded shut and placed on the counter now. Damn, she was up to the part where Darcy was proposing to Elizabeth. That was going to go down well.

She'd found there was simply an amazing number of books in this world, none of which she'd been able to access whilst in the asylum. Manning Rumpelstiltskin's shop could get boring. Those that came in usually conducted their business as quickly as possible and left. No one browsed. It wasn't that they were ever rude to her. Far from it; in fact, they were infuriatingly polite. Well, she was dating the most feared man in Storybrooke. Some apprehension was understandable, but it was getting a bit tiring. At least she had an almost inexhaustible supply of books she had never seen or heard of, or far less read before.

When she saw it was Ben Thatch walking into the shop she couldn't help but smile. Though he had slightly angered her with his comment about Rumpelstiltskin, now that she'd had time to think about it he was the only person who'd walked in here and said something so brutally honest. He was obviously just asking because he wanted to know what he was getting into, but the point was he hadn't feared the man so much that it affected his interaction with her. Here was someone she might actually be able to hold a decent conversation with. She loved Rumpelstiltskin, but the relationship did affect how people spoke to her. Or rather didn't.

"Hello again…" Belle gave the man a warm smile.

Ben strolled up to the counter, glancing at the shelves and their contents as he passed. He carried a stack of loosely bound paper in one hand. A contract, Belle realised. That hadn't taken long.

Something appeared to be on his mind, but when he got to the counter and his attention rested on her he couldn't help but smile back. "Hi. Busy day?"

Belle's face broke into a grin. He was making small talk! Then the thought occurred to her that it was rather sad this made her so excited. It could be worse. Rumpelstiltskin could have her locked up in a castle again. At least the semi social seclusion she'd endured for the past month was entirely unintentional on his part. And it was sure as hell better than the asylum.

She sighed. "Not really. I've got something to do at least…" She tapped the book beside her.

Ben smiled. "That's good. Hey, I just came to turn in this contract Rumpelstiltskin gave me for the house. Decided to take it." He placed the contract on the counter.

Belle flicked open the pile of paper, checking it was all signed off correctly. She didn't understand these contracts at all, but Rumpelstiltskin had shown her how to check the basics in case anyone brought one in and before she passed it on to him. It saved him having to chase up silly little things like people initialing instead of putting a full signature, or missing pages. Apparently these led to loopholes, and Rumpelstiltskin didn't like loopholes. Not ones he couldn't utilise himself, at least. She let out a frustrated huff as she flicked through to the last third of the pile of paper. Why they had to be so big she didn't get either. "Alright, I can pass that on," she said as let the paper fall closed.

Ben reached out a hand as she went to place the contract under the counter, his hand pinning down the top edge of the stack. He didn't quite look at Belle, his gaze fixed on some indeterminate point behind her on the floor.

Belle sighed. He'd only been here a few days. What had he heard, or having met with Rumpelstiltskin, what had he seen himself in that brief time that made him hesitate? "Second thoughts?"

Ben blinked. "Maybe." He pulled the contract back towards himself as Belle let it go. He spun it around and stared at it for a moment. "Belle… I hope you don't think I'm being forward… but from what I've heard, and just the… vibes I got from Rumpelstiltskin when arranging this… I'm not sure it's the best idea."

"Well," Belle replied, though his words rattled her slightly. "I don't have a problem with you being honest. Gods know, no one else here feels like being frank with me."

Ben looked at her. "They're all scared of him, aren't they?"

Belle wasn't sure how much she should be sharing with this man. But somehow she felt as if she had to set his mind at rest. "Yes."

Ben looked away again. He was struggling to do this; distrust was starting to taint his interaction with her already. But not fear. Belle sensed no fear from him. So he was perhaps the only person in Storybrooke who didn't fear Rumpelstiltskin, besides herself. Perhaps he was just naïve, Belle thought, then felt bad for thinking that was the only reason someone couldn't fear Rumpelstiltskin. Ben seemed frustrated, unsure, and maybe a little angry, but he wasn't afraid.

"Again, sorry to be forward… but I know you're with him. You probably know him better than anyone else here. Should I be worried? I have a job and I expect I can keep it; I shouldn't have any problem paying the rent… but… I can't help but feel like I shouldn't be doing this…"

Belle contemplated the man before her. She wasn't angry at him anymore for asking these questions. Well, not much. A part of her felt they were justifiable. The other wanted to let him know that Rumpelstiltskin was not the sort of man he thought. But she couldn't quite find the right words, because a simple statement of his goodness of heart was untrue.

"Ben…" she shook her head. "He doesn't deserve the level of fear people hold him in… though he certainly doesn't discourage it. He's not a bad man, but…"

"But?"

Belle wasn't sure why she forged ahead. Perhaps it was a betrayal of Rumpelstiltskin, but she felt she had to convince this man his fears were unjustified. He was the only person who'd given her the chance. "The magic has done something to him. It already had. I'm not sure what. It's like it's a drug. He's just…"

"Scared," Ben offered.

Belle wasn't sure how he knew that, but it was true. "Yes…" she said, staring at Ben now. Who was this man? "He instigates fear in everyone else… his contracts… his deals… it keeps them all in his power. It's all about power. Without it he's vulnerable. Only he's not, he just thinks he is. He's not a bad man; he just doesn't seem to see what this is doing to him. Although he might, and that's even worse…" She trailed off and then shook her head. "He shouldn't have brought the magic back."

"What?" Ben was staring at her intently. She could feel the emotional intensity wash off him. She almost took a step back. But it wasn't anger, and it wasn't directed at her.

Belle suddenly realised how much she'd said. "I'm sorry… I don't know why I've told you all this…"

Ben ignored her apology entirely. "You know… do you know for a fact it was him who brought the magic back?"

"I've said too much already…"

"Please!" Ben slammed a hand on the table. The sound made her jump, but she didn't actually fear he'd hurt her. He wasn't angry; something she'd said had upset him.

Belle couldn't quite figure it out. But the man was looking at her almost desperately. She was confused, and so she continued. Surely that piece of information couldn't be used against Rumpelstiltskin. "Yes. I saw him bring it back myself…"

"You're sure?!" Ben said.

"Yes, I'm sure! You come in here and shout at me for gods know what reason… I'm not going to lie to you! What does it matter to you anyway?"

Ben bit his lip, and Belle saw tears in his eyes before he turned away. "I… I still can't figure out why he thinks he needs it… he survived here without it for twenty-eight years, didn't he?!" He was talking to himself, caught up in some emotional turmoil. "I came here so he could leave it behind!"

Belle felt her heart skip a beat. Suddenly everything clicked into place. Rumpelstiltskin had told her, reluctantly, and after some prompting, what exactly it was he had Sheriff Swan chasing up for him. Belle had finally heard the story of Rumpelstiltskin's son. "Baelfire?"

"What?!" Ben spun around. Then he blinked and seemed to actually calm down as he realised what had just happened. "I'm…" he stuttered, then sighed and shook his head, wiping a hand across his face. "He told you. So he told someone. I was beginning to think it was just too much of an embarrassment for him."

"No…" Belle came around the counter. It all made sense now. Now she knew why Ben had come seeking someone to tell him he was wrong. "Not at all. He's wanted nothing more than to have you back. He's going to be so happy when he finds out your Baelfire."

"My name's not Baelfire. It hasn't been for years. It's Ben." The man let out a sigh. "I suppose you're going to tell him now."

"I think that's up to you. Ben… he will be happy to see you. Why haven't you told him who you are?"

Ben scuffed a shoe across the floorboards, not quite willing to look up at Belle. "I didn't even mean to tell you. It's because I don't know him. I haven't seen him for nearly twenty years. He hasn't seen me for at least twenty-eight, and I expect it's far, far longer than that. I was starting to have trouble recognising him even before I came here; he was changing. How much is he going to have changed now?"

"There's still a man in there, Ben. Your father is still there."

"That's what I was hoping. That's why I haven't told him straight away. But all I've seen of him so far that I recognise… it's like he's kept the worst parts of who he was. I don't know what I see, Belle. So I thought I'd poke around and try to find out who he is."

"Do you still love him?"

Ben looked up at her with a slightly hurt expression on his face. He thought about it for a brief moment, and seemed to find he actually believed the answer he spoke. "Yes."

Belle smiled. "Then you'll find out he's still your father soon enough. Give him time. But don't hide this from him for too long. When he told me about you… he really regrets what he did…"

"He left me here by myself. I came here for him. And he couldn't let go of that damn Knife…"

Belle frowned, not sure what a knife had to do with it. Rumpelstiltskin hadn't been overly detailed when he had finally told her what had happened to Baelfire.

"I did this for him. He was supposed to come with me and leave magic behind, but he couldn't even do that…"

"Don't be too hard on him. 'Magic is power', apparently, and it certainly has a lot of power over Rumpelstiltskin. Look, I won't let him know who you are. But don't string him out for too long. He needs to find you."

Ben nodded slowly. "Maybe I am just being a coward… look, I'll make you a deal. Give me a week. I'll find out what I can. And if you could help me…"

"I'm not going to lie to him." Belle said firmly.

"You don't have to say anything to him… just… could you just tell me about him?"

"Of course," Belle smiled faintly.

Ben smiled back. "Thanks."

"So you going to put that contract in or not?"

Ben looked at the stack of paper in his hand as if he'd forgotten it was there. "I'll think about it some more. Maybe turn it in tomorrow. That'll give me an excuse to come in."

"One week," Belle reminded him.

Ben nodded.

"It'll be easier than you think it is, I promise."

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