Everything was set. The cake was made, the presents were bought. All that was left was for Mabel to get back from town with Hatter. Belle and Rumple had spent all day working with a small group of staff to turn Hatter's work shop into a suitable area for a two year old to have her third birthday. Rumple felt his heart swell with joy at the thought of his daughter's birthday, but it was weighed down by the worry he felt about his plans for tomorrow.
That was he was going to be leaving tomorrow.
He had memorized what he had to do, so there would be no mistake. He hated that he was keeping this from Belle, but he was doing this for her. Belle was walking in carrying a bowl and Granny was following her with some sweet smelling food. Belle flashed him a smile and he gave her a small smirk. He was ecstatic because this was the first birthday that Rumple could pay for a proper gift for Mabel. He was so unused to the heaviness in his pouch. He would often catch himself stopping in the hallway because he thought he heard someone following him, but it was merely him walking with his half full pouch.
Today was also the fall festival. Today was going to be dedicated to Mabel, but tonight after she had drifted off to sleep everyone attending her party would sneak off to join the festival. Rumple had never been to one, given that his village didn't have those. They were too small and too many people were being carted off to war for there to be anyone to celebrate. Belle had reassured him that it would be fun, so he went along with her and promised to go with her.
There was noise outside the door and Belle motioned for everyone to hide. Hatter was talking and Mabel was laughing. She had a flower in her hair and candy on her face. When she looked in the room everyone jumped out yelling 'surprise!'. Mabel squealed and ran to her papa. She bounced around in front of him. Hatter looked at his workroom in awe. There were ribbons and bows covering anything that wasn't attached to the walls. He walked over to Belle. Mabel had dragged her father to the refreshment stand and was eating something that Granny had made. Belle smiled at Jefferson. He had his hands on his hips and she mimicked his stance.
"I remember getting asked permission for this." He was offered a candy by Mabel and he took it, thanking her. She was laughing and bounding around. He looked back at Belle with a raised eyebrow as he popped the candy in his mouth.
"Jefferson, may we use your workroom as a surprise party for Mabel?" Jefferson made a noise in the back of his throat. He contorted his face in disgust as the sour candy traumatized his tongue.
"Ugh, sour!" He heard Mabel giggling and he stuck his tongue out at her. She returned it. She was currently getting her father to try a different candy. She had the wrapper behind her back and was trying to persuade her father it wasn't mint. He slumped his shoulders and gingerly licked the candy. The minute it hit his tongue he gagged and made a face. She laughed and scurried off to try and deceive someone else. Belle caught her and scolded her, gently, for tricking people. She put Mabel down and she wondered over to her father and Jefferson.
"I'm sorry, for tricking you." They accepted her apology and Belle gathered their attention. Mabel ran over to Belle and made 'gimmie' hands. Belle picked her up and listened as Mabel told her what she wanted to do. Belle agreed that it would be a perfect plan.
"Princess Mabel has requested that we have a tea party." Mabel clapped her hands together and smiled. Belle had a tea tray sent up and soon all participants were gathered around a small table. Rumpelstiltskin, Jefferson, Mrs. Potts, Mabel, and Ruby. They were pressed tight to each other as Mabel commenced the tea party. The small table was littered with cups and plates and a variety of other things. Belle thought it resembled the Mad Hatter's tea party. Belle was sitting between Ruby and Mrs. Potts while Rumple sat across from her squeeze between his daughter and Jefferson. They continued to play until it came time for cake and Mabel could barely contain her excitement. Belle momentarily regretted giving the three year old so much sugar, but decided to make an exception for her birthday. Jefferson cut the cake and gave everyone a piece. Mabel was the first to take a bite. Belle eyed Rumple over her piece of cake. She smirked at him when he looked over; he gave her a worried glance in return. Belle called Jefferson over and he was in the middle of stuffing his face with cake. He was no better than Mabel.
"Yes?" He said around chewing. She scowled at him, but continued to go with her plan. Jefferson gave a wicked smile and nodded. When Belle looked back at Rumple he was talking to Mabel. She had cake all around her mouth, but managed to keep it off her dress. He must had sensed her looking at him because he turned his attention to Belle. She waved as Jefferson came up behind him and smashed his face with cake. Belle wasn't able to see his reaction because soon her face was full of cake as well. Ruby laughed behind her and she stood with her mouth open in shock. Everyone laughed and Mabel pouted.
"You didn't get me." She crossed her arms over her chest. Belle laughed and walked over. She took a piece that was on her face and smeared it onto Mabel's face. Mabel smiled and clapped her hands. Rumpelstiltskin even gave one of his rare, genuine smiles. Belle felt a shiver run from the base of her spine up then back down again. She watched as his eyes darkened and Jefferson got in between them.
"Present time?" He looked at Belle for confirmation. Belle wiped her face of cake, nodding. Mabel looked ready to explode. Her excitement palpable. Jefferson pulled out four boxes. One from Belle, one from Ruby, one from Jefferson, and one from the father of the birthday girl. Mabel grabbed the one from Jefferson first. It was small with a bow and plenty of ribbon. It had her name on it, but she couldn't read it. She ran over to Belle and Belle pulled her onto her lap. She pointed to the swirly handwriting on the box.
"What say?" Belle pointed to the handwriting. She sounded out the letters,
"Ma-bel." The three year old smiled and opened the box. Inside was thin paper tied up with string. Belle helped unknot the string and it fell away to reveal a small hat. Mabel squealed and put it on. It was bright pink with pink gems encircling it. It was a little big, but Belle knew that Jefferson did that so she could grow into it. Belle leaned down and whispered in Mabel's ear. Mabel scrambled off of Belle's lap and ran to Jefferson. She attacked him in a hug and kissed his cheek. He hugged her back and Belle could see tears silently falling from his face. She wanted so badly for Jefferson to get his little girl back, but unless they had someone to stay in Wonderland then either he had to stay or never see his daughter again. Mabel let go and grabbed another box. It was from Ruby. It was in just plain with string around it. Mabel opened it up to reveal a new pair of shoes. Mabel hugged them close to her body and thanked Ruby the same as she did Jefferson. Ruby hugged the tot and Mabel tried to put on her shoes, Rumple stopped her and took the shoes.
"You can wear them tomorrow. Finish your presents." Mabel nodded and grabbed Belle's. Ruby, Jefferson, and Belle had agreed not to outdo Rumple, so they all decided what to get her together. Ruby got her shoes, Jefferson made her a hat, Belle got her a small golden bracelet that Mabel was now taking out of the wrapping and showing her papa. Belle explained that it was for special outings and not to be worn when she was playing. Rumple put the bracelet on her daughter's wrist and Mabel nodded in understanding. Finally Belle held out Rumple's gift. Mabel enthusiastically ripped open the paper and carefully took out the item inside. She squealed and smiled, hugging it close to her body as she bounced around. It was a dress, the same color as Mabel's light green eyes. She smiled wide and ran into her father. He nearly fell over with the force of her hug. He chuckled. "That's not all." Mabel left the dress with her father and walked over to the box. In there lie a few more wrapped items. Mabel unwrapped them and smiled. Belle chuckled as Mabel bounded over to Belle and held the books out to her.
"What they say?" Mabel looked at Belle from her knees. Belle grabbed the books and looked at the titles. She pointed them out to Mabel as she read them,
"The three little pigs and the big bad wolf." Mabel watched in amazement as Belle read to her. "The boy who cried wolf." Mabel grabbed them and the rest of her presents. She pressed them to her chest and beamed at everyone. She looked back at her mama and her papa. They were both smiling lovingly at her and she felt her heart swell. This was the best birthday ever.
The sun was near dusk and the sugar was draining from Mabel's bloodstream. She was yawning every five seconds and she could barely keep her eyes open. By the time Belle picked her up and gave her to Ruby she was already sleeping. Mrs. Potts shooed everyone out of the room. An entourage of maids came in and they began to clean up. Despite Belle's protests. "You have a festival to host." Belle sighed and linked her arm with Rumple and Jefferson.
"Care for a festival, fellas?" She chuckled and they made their way to the dining hall. Rumple had never been to this festival, so he was nervous as to the proceedings. Belle explained it to him as they traversed through the castle. She explained how everyone in the village would eat dinner at the castle and then once they were done they would all leave to the meadowed hills behind the castle where bonfires were lit and people gathered in groups and watched the last of the sunrise and stayed out all night under the stars enjoying the first day off fall and the end of a good harvest. By the time they were at the dining hall many of the villagers were sitting in their designated spots. Belle let go of Jefferson, so he may sneak off to find his seat. Belle carefully nudged Rumple along the rows of tables. When she saw what she was looking for she grabbed it from the table and walked to the middle table. Rumple noticed that it was a name card. With his name on it.
When they reached the specific spot she wanted she was disappointed to see a man sitting there. He was a large man with a thick coat of rabbit fur. Belle cleared her throat and the man turned around. His face lit up when he saw Belle. "Belle!" he called and stood up. She held her hand out and he kissed it.
"Lord Gonzo." She said fondly. "I'm so sorry, but there seemed to have been a mix up in the seating and you are at a different location." Belle had made the seating chart herself. She didn't make a mistake; she just wasn't expecting to grow so attached to the spinner. The tables weren't ordered by class like many other kingdoms were. She made it so everyone sat together, intermixed. Nobles by staff and peasants. Peasant sitting at the table with the king. It made the kingdom a much more civil place.
"But I always sit here." He sounded more confused than upset. She nodded in agreement.
"Yes, but there seems to be an abundance of people that I forgot to tally. I will show you to your seat, if you so please." He smirked then guffawed loudly. He held his round belly.
"Alright, Princess, but I expect an extra serving of desert. You know how I am fond of Chef's deserts." He licked his lips and Belle smiled. She took Lord Gonzo's name plate and switched it with Rumple's. The spinner didn't know what to do, so he sat down. He looked at the name plates around the table. At the head, three chairs down from him, was the king. To Rumple's left sat Belle, then directly across from her was Gaston. Next to Rumple sat Benjy, Belle's guard and next to Belle sat Frankie, her other guard.
Rumple realized what Belle had done. He sent a silent prayer to whatever deity that was listening. He was close enough to hear her conversation and participate if needed, but also far enough to make it seem as though he were like a normal staff member. He saw that a few seats down from him Jefferson sat. After a few more minutes people began pouring into the dining room. After twenty minutes Maurice was addressing all of the village from the head of his table and there was silence from all around.
"Welcome! The royal family greets you with open arms as we celebrate another successful harvest!" His voice boomed with welcome and warmth. Rumpelstiltskin instantly felt at home. Everyone cheered and the roar was deafening. He hoped that Mabel didn't wake up from all the noise. He hadn't seen Ruby or Mrs. Potts return, so maybe they were making sure that if she did wake, she would go running to him. "Let's begin!" The doors to the kitchen opened and all available staff was carrying food. Rows and rows of plates were brought out and set on each and every table. All kinds of food, too. Mutton, beef, lamb, potatoes, bread, some sort of meat that Rumple didn't recognize. There was so much food. The room smelt glorious and he thought he saw a few people drooling, he wouldn't be surprised if he himself was.
Soon conversation started all around and the room was filled with joy and warmth. Plates were set in front of Rumple and everyone grabbed what they wanted in an orderly fashion. Each person waiting for the next to be done before grabbing food. Rumple waited for his turn and listened to Belle speak to her father. He wasn't eavesdropping, he was just listening to her voice, how light and free she sounded. Granny came around to Belle and he looked away when someone next to him nudge his arm. It was Chip; he was motioning for Rumple to get his food. The spinner didn't have to be told twice. He loaded his plate with food and Belle laughed. He looked over and she was covering her mouth, looking at him. He looked away and blushed, the next person taking their turn.
They spent what felt like hours in the dining hall. Rumple didn't think he would ever eat again. He doubted he could even stand. Soon everyone finished and Belle put her napkin on her plate. It must have been the usual signal because everyone rose and began exiting the hall to the meadows. The warmth and conversation followed as Rumple gathered himself to get out of his chair. Jefferson came by and helped Rumple to the meadows. When Rumple got out there people were already lighting fires and sitting around or laying looking at the dying rays of the sun. Jefferson led Rumple to the right and to Belle's bonfire. There was no one else there, lest Ruby and Jefferson now. Everyone else seemed to know that they couldn't trespass in this one area. Rumple could see people passing around a jug at each of the groups and when Jefferson pulled a few from his bag Rumple knew exactly what it was. He popped the top to one and took a long swig. He passed to Belle who refused then to Rumple he did the same.
"You two are no fun! Let loose! Be wild!" Jefferson took another long swig and Ruby swiped it from his grasp. She scowled at him, it lost its effect in the dark.
"Don't drink it all!" Music began playing and Belle got up. She smiled and offered her hand to Rumple. He shook his head.
"Belle, I couldn't – " She cut him off, grabbing his hand and pulling him up.
"Of course you could. You don't even have to dance." She began to dance around him, picking up her skirts and doing the dance of her county. With the red fire glowing off her curls and the twilight sun illuminating her face he never would have wanted anything else. She was so beautiful and he felt so undeserving of her affections. The tune changed and the change from her counties dance to that of a gypsy made his eyes go dark. She was a minx and he could tell she knew by the way her tongue gently poked from between her teeth.
It was several hours later, the moon was high in the sky and beaming down with its crescent smirk. Rumple could see people dancing by their fires as music continued to play and a few people playing some sort of tag game. Belle lay next to him on the grass. He had been braiding grass leaves together as she was staring up at the stars. She would point out some to him sometimes, but gave up after she noticed that when she asked 'aren't they beautiful' he would respond 'yes' and his eyes never left hers. Belle leaned up as Ruby ran, drunkenly passed them Jefferson in tow. She was laughing and screaming playfully, much like other people around them. Ruby fell and Jefferson quickly followed, crawling on top of her and unabashedly kissing her. Rumple blushed as the kiss heated up, but Belle rolled over on her stomach and pulled Jefferson off of Ruby. Although there were no children at this event, Belle didn't want them to be punished for indecency.
"Get a room you two." Ruby whined and Jefferson tried to fight off the invisible force in front of him. Rumple began to wonder how many jugs those two had consumed in the past few hours. The words seemed to finally register in Jefferson's head because he wobbled to a standing position and staggered to grab Ruby.
"Tha- that's a g-g-g-good idea." Jefferson giggled. He picked up Ruby and carried her off into the dark. Belle rolled back onto her back and Rumple reached out, grabbing her wrist. He tied the bracelet around her wrist. She looked at it in the glow of the fire and smiled. She grabbed the back of his uniform and pulled him back. He hit the soft earth with an 'oof'. They both looked up at the stars. Belle moved to prop herself up on her elbow. She looked at Rumple. As much as Rumple wanted to enjoy this precious moment the dread of his plan weighed heavy in his heart. He looked over at her and her eyes were sparkling. He sucked in a breath as she leaned down and gave him a slow kiss. He reciprocated eagerly. She broke away, panting. His eyes were black in the moonlight. She shivered. She moved down to kiss him again, but he softly spoke,
"Belle." She opened her eyes and looked at him. She saw the sadness there. He leaned up on his elbows. "I know away to make all those horrible things Gaston said, go away." Belle's eyes widened.
"How?" Rumple couldn't possibly explain it to her. He was finally able to do something brave, and he wasn't going to back out now. He shook his head.
"I can't tell you." She pursed her lips. He hated not telling her, but it was for her own good. "I need a carriage at dawn. I hope to be back within a day." Belle took a deep breath and looked up at the moon. It was three fourths of the way down the sky. Soon it would be dawn and he would be leaving.
"What if something goes wrong?" Rumple shook his head. He had thought of the perfect plan ever since the beggar told him. He wouldn't – couldn't – fail. Belle leaned up farther and moved until she was hovering over him. The bonfires were going out and most people were asleep. Only the glowing embers were left of their fire. "You have to promise to come back to me." His hand reached up and pulled her head down to connect their lips. He poured all of his emotions into the kiss. Belle started to cry. They broke apart. "Promise me." He wiped away her tears.
"I promise." She leaned down and kissed him again, but this time with more fervor. He returned the kiss with enthusiasm.
The carriage was ready and Belle wrapped the shawl around her shoulders. A cold wind had picked up and she felt goose bumps prickle her skin. Her hair wisped in the wind. She held it back with her hand. Rumple stood in front of her. She was tired from last night. Most people slept all day after the fall festival, so the village will be quiet. The castle was like a graveyard. No one awake, save for Rumple, Benjy, Frankie, her carriage driver Charles, and herself. Benjy and Frankie were by the front door and Charles looked over the horses. Belle felt her heart squeeze impossibly. She didn't like this, but she let him do it, hoping it was the right thing. He held her free hand and leaned in to give her a saccharine kiss. She kept herself from crying. He let go of her with one last chaste kiss and hurried to the carriage. Belle watched as it left the front gates and the window blew passed her, making her shiver. She continued to stand there, watching, until she could no longer see the carriage. Only then did she go inside, despite Frankie tugging at her arm.