Belle opened her eyes once more. This time, she was in a grotto.
"In answer to the inevitable, I am the Nixie. Tell me, how is Rumplestiltskin?"
"I don’t -"
"Advice: on lies, I am far less tolerant of them than the boy you know."
"He’s not a boy," Belle said defensively.
“Youth, then,” the Nixie said. “You know him. Not as well as you may like.”
“What business is it of yours?” Belle snapped, then covered her own mouth. “I -”
“*I* am the Nixie. Foe of the River Demons. Arbiter of when lakes and rivers have a tide. You’re welcome.”
“Thank you,” Belle said. “But how am I still alive? Are you more powerful than my uncle?”
“If I am, is immaterial,” the Nixie said. “*You* are.”
“Me? But how? I’m an ordinary person.”
No such animal. “Then why aren’t you a statue littering the marshes?”
“I don’t know,” Belle admitted.
The Nixie cracked her own knuckles. “Do you want to leave here?”
“Yes please; not that you’re a bad hostess. But… I can’t go home.”
“’Home’ has any number of meanings. Pick one yourself. Or would you prefer I float you to one?”
“I can choose,” Belle said.
“You are sure?” the Nixie asked.
The Nixie considered her, flowing around her before asking, "Should I release you, Belle?"
"Yes, please," Belle said.
"For what reason, or in exchange for what?"
"I… I don’t really have anyth- Wait, my uncle. He -"
"You had gold floating on you. I took that as payment for not letting you die." Most of it, I took.
"So what do you want?" Belle asked.
"I don’t want your firstborn or your future wealth. I have no need of servants or toys. So I will set you loose to find yourself before you find your love again; and in return, you will owe me a favor."
"Okay, I agree," Belle said.
"I see nothing wrong with your offer."
Gods, were we ever that young? "Until the favor is called in, it has no expiration."
Belle nodded. "You could have me repay you today, tomorrow, or four score and eighty years from now."
"Exactly," the Nixie warned.
"I still have no problem with it."
"Then go. And take your bodyguard with you."
Belle looked down at her feet, at the unconscious woman lying there. "Who is she?"
Belle saw a body floating there when she looked down at the water lapping at her feet. “Who is that?” she asked, not backing away - life at court and with Rumplestiltskin had taught her not to betray your fear.
“One of your uncle’s minions,” the Nixie said. “She leaped in after you.”
“Why would she do that?”
For a fan of the morals of the Heroic Age, you seem to have skipped the page on fealty. Then again, with your generation‘s and your parents’ generation’s habit of making deals on behalf of others, I shouldn’t be so surprised. "Your uncle sent her after you. Right down the tower and into my water," the Nixie said.
"Is she dead?"
"Death is an irreversible state. But easily avoided.“ And easily imitated. “For her life, there is a task for you to do - take this to Irene Adler."
"Take -" Belle started to ask, but then saw a small cloth pouch appear in the Nixie’s hand. "What is it?"
"Not your concern what it is; your concern is only that it reaches her. Now take her and go, before I change my mind."
Heaving up the unconscious woman to lean against her and accepting the pouch from the Nixie, Belle thought, And where will I find this Irene Adler?
“Are you doing this out of some attempt at bravery, or because you thought you had a choice - now or when Rumplestiltskin came for you?”
“I had a choice,” Belle said.
"Choice is illusive," the Nixie said. "When no pressure to choose is applied, few notice the options or feel any urge to choose. And there are yourself and Sim Chung.
"It was in my youth, when I was a water maiden attendant in the court of a noble River Dragon. He gave an ultimatum to a waterside community: he would destroy the area, unless a woman came to him of her own cognizance. They all said no.
"Then came Sim Chung, who said yes."
"I don’t see the problem," Belle said. "She saved -"
"She offered herself, cynics would rebut, because her father’s health depended upon the reward being offered to anyone who would agree to go with the River Dragon," the Nixie said, looking pointedly at Belle.
"You’re very cynical."
"I am under the impression you like that."
“So is your point that heroism is bribery with the reward omitted?" Belle asked.
"It could be interpreted so. If I tell you the fate of Sim Chung, that would again change your response. Now, I ask you again - why go to Rumplestiltskin?"
I wanted to be brave, Belle thought.
Belle’s head broke the river’s surface and she walked to the shore, half-carrying her uncle’s knightess leaning against Belle. The water on their clothes fled back into the river. "Thank you, o Nixie," Belle whispered.
They were only a short distance from her uncle’s castle, Belle realized before she saw the two men on horseback approaching them. One, she did not recognize. The other was - "Frederick!"
"Belle," Frederick said. "This is Prince James, who ended my paused time as a golden statue."
"It was nothing," James said.
"Nothing?" Belle asked. "We all owe you a thanks."
"I only did what anyone would have done."
"Many have tried. You succeeded." To Frederick, "We need to get to my uncle’s palace."
"Of course. Let’s get you both on a horse."
“Can I offer you a ride, Sheriff?”
Emma looked over and saw Dr. Whale driving alongside the curb. “Thanks, but no thanks,” Emma said.
“Relax, Sheriff, I’m not hitting on you. Just offering you a lift to the hospital. You need to see Sam, after all, right?”
“Samuel Juan He,” Dr. Whale said. “Works in the psych wing.”
“Think you can get him to sit down with me?” Emma asked.
“What if he’s not there?” she asks, remembering what that investigator told her.
“He’ll see you, Sheriff Swann. Don’t worry about that.”
“Okay,” Emma said, and got in his car. “Let’s go.”
“So you are the new Sheriff?” Dr. He asked Emma at the Nurses’ Station in the Storybrooke Hospital where the two of them were supposed to meet.
“I am,” Emma said. “Emma Swan.”
“Samuel He,” Dr. He said.
“Nice to meet you. Though I have to admit, I didn’t think Storybrooke had a sanitarium.”
“That’s the way most of us like it. Part of the reason why we keep it under the hospital. I must say, our condolences on the loss of Sheriff Graham.”
"I was wondering if I could tell Miss May Noapte."
"I'm afraid I don't see a convincing reason why you should. Yes, her mental state isn't as fragile as those of some residing here, but that's not saying much."
To be honest, I'm surprised I hadn't passed by Storybrooke's sanitarium earlier, Emma thought. "She checked herself in, didn't she?"
"After heading our town's largest gang. Some say she's still calling the shots, from in here."
"Not to my knowledge."
Okay. "Miss Noapte is also listed as Graham's emergency contact," Emma said. "Her and a construction foreman I'm seeing next.
Dr. He shook his head. "Very well, Deputy - or Sheriff, as the case may be. Follow me. My office is this way."
To get the keys, Emma reasoned. When they got there, Emma looked around his office - at the calendar covered in pyramids from around the world, at the desk where medical texts were bookmarked with clippings for discounts at Granny’s.
This is what I see when I leave home, Sinuhe mused. He, dressed in a naval uniform festooned with badges and medals; she, dressed in fine silk; Sinuhe and Granny were seated in King Midas’ throne room, listening alongside him to Prince David’s confession and admittance, and watched as the freshly-returned Midas came to a decision. "Give me a reason to not hand you over to King George," King Midas said to David. "A reason which does not involve my daughter or Frederick."
Good to know good news still travels fast, David thought as he stayed kneeling before Midas. "King George needs your gold more than you need him," David said.
"Then why do I need you?"
A more than fair question. I was to have been a route, a reason for King Midas to give a measure of gold to King George. "Because…" trying not to think of Snow, of his mother or the family farm, of King George mounted on the other side of the border with those knights. "Because I can help you, King Midas."
"Everyone wants to help me," was Midas’ unimpressed reply.
"Be that as it may, I actually can help."
"On a quest?"
"Ask anyone - I always return with the prize," David said.
"And what if I sent you on a snark hunt?" Midas enquired.
"I will scour the countryside, my lord."
"Fealty and a search? Very well. Go."
"Your horse has been readied; go find me my snarks. My niece will accompany you, and you shall not lay a finger upon her except to save her life. Do you understand?"
"I understand. And I accept the honor."
Then go. Until today, this was a real quest. Now, with Belle’s plight, the snarkhunt is a guise, a cover. What is important is getting her to safety. "Then go, so I may handle King George."
"At once," David said and was shown the way to his horse.
"Apologies," Midas said to his old acquaintances once David was gone. "I should have seen to you first. I am a poor host."
"Under no meaning of the words are you a poor host, Midas," Sinuhe said. "Family takes priority - we understand that perfectly."
Midas nodded and jested, "Then I should have spoken with David after Granny," of whom I was an enemy when she was Arachne.
"It would all be fine by us," Granny said to Midas. "You stood by us when Sinuhe had his midlife crisis."
"It was not a crisis," Sinuhe said, "I simply felt it best to pack up the family and return us to my old home."
"Of course, dear."
"Your grandchild is here," Midas told them. "My daughter is giving her a tour."
"The poor dear probably looks lost," Granny said. "Not that we aren’t grateful -"
"On the contrary, Red looks as at home here as Abigail does."
"Then my request is simplified," Sinuhe said. "I was about to observe that, under the present circumstances, with the kingdoms being as war-ready as they are, we may need a room here."
"Of course," Midas said. "Use as many as you like."
"Only what we need," Granny corrected him.
"I did not misspeak," Midas said gently. "I ask you not to abuse the generosity of your host in that way. I am not yet a pauper."
"And you never will be one," Sinuhe said.
"If wealth alone were all that was required, I would be secure. But even my own prosperity is tenuous at this moment," Midas told them.
"And that’s why you sought the alliance with King George," Granny said.
"Yes," Midas said. If I did not need the alliance, it would be because my kingdom is well enough that I could defend Belle against the clerics and any others who come for her. But alas…
"Belle, my favorite niece, made a deal to protect her father’s duchy, which sits between the ogrelands and my own. But that solution only lasts until the ogres go around the duchy. And then there are the other kingdoms."
"George, Frederick, and the list goes on," Sinuhe said. "King George’s army would have been a great help there."
"Yes. I almost prefer the depredations of chimeras and dragons, over the looming threat of human neighbors," Midas muttered.
"I don’t see how we can help," Granny said apologetically. "I doubt the old resistance members are in fighting form any longer. But we might know some traders who could stall the kingdoms."
Sinuhe nodded. "They’ve long been wondering when I was going to call in the favors they owe me - and with your neighboring kings having shortchanged them, my trader contacts will be all too happy to pitch in."
"Thank you. Thank you both," Midas told them.
"Have you any plans for a more permanent solution?" Granny asked.
"I do. It’s the very quest I’m sending David on. I am sending a message to the Arimaspeans."
"Are you sure that’s wise?"
Midas opened his mouth to answer, but one of his knights said from the room’s entrance, "My lord, your niece has returned."
I was already aware of that - thanks to Fredrick. But no doubt you have a reason for saying what you have said. "Bring her here," Midas instructed him. "She can meet our guests." Seeing that the knight didn’t move, "Is there something else?"
"She is being pursued by a party of clerics. As she is within your walls, your niece has a head start."
"Send out knights to intercept and delay the clerics - whose are they? - while you will bring my niece into this room personally," Midas said. "Now."
"The clerics come from the direction of your niece‘s father‘s castle. I will go at once," the knight said.
“My King,” Belle said to Midas when the knight escorted her into the throne room. To King Midas’ other guests, Belle said, “Sir Sinuhe and Lady…” trailing off because the knight had only had time to tell her one name en route to the throne room from where Belle had been waiting.
“Granny, dear,” Granny said, smiling. “Don’t stand on formality for my sake, child.”
“Not ‘king’ - call me ‘father,’” Midas instructed Belle. “The duke has failed in his guardianship of you, and I therefore am exercising my kingly right.”
I recall you said you would never do or say that, Granny thought. Mind, the context was different: I was tied up and taunting you.
Belle nodded. “What would you have me do?” intending to defend her father later. There was nothing he could have done. And the choice was mine.
“Make yourself at home,” Midas said. “You may have any room but that of Princess Abigail.”
“Thank you… father.”
“Now, my child, I have a few questions for you. To ascertain what has transpired.”
Belle’s face turned the appropriate color. “We never - Nothing happened between - I only kissed Rumplestiltskin.”
King Midas blinked. “Your integrity has not, is not, and will not be in question, Belle.”
“What were the terms of Rumplestiltskin’s deal?”
“He would save the duchy from the ogres,” Belle said. “I asked him if my friends would all be safe - when you read to me, father, on your visits to the duchy and mine to visit Abigail on playdates, your stories stressed verifying and double-checking.”
That is true, Midas knew. Traditional tales from the old country, passed down from the pre-Hero times.
“Rumplestiltskin said, ‘I give you my word.’ Then I replied, ‘Then I give you mine: I will go with you, forever.’ Those were the terms.”
“You made the deal with him, then?” Sinuhe said.
Belle nodded. “Is that significant?”
“And he made you leave his castle?” Granny asked.
“Then he may have saved your life from magic’s cost,” Midas said. Or at least delayed it. “You may go. Rest, wander, explore.”