|Nor Iron Bars a Cage
Author: Bad Faery PM
Gold gets Belle back in not-quite mint condition and sets to work making amends.Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Drama - Belle & Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold - Chapters: 2 - Words: 13,531 - Reviews: 54 - Favs: 153 - Follows: 30 - Updated: 05-19-13 - Published: 05-07-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8095691
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Prologue- The Enchanted Forest
'She lied. She lied; she lied, she lied sheliedsheliedshelied...' The words raced through Rumpelstiltskin's mind at breakneck speed as he materialized on the outskirts of Belle's father's kingdom, already stretching his senses for any sign of Belle herself. His visit was unnecessary; he knew what had happened to her after she attempted to break his curse: she went home once he set her free, returned to her father, found a prince to adore her, and even now she was regretting she'd ever thought fondly of a dark creature like him.
Rumpelstiltskin had to believe his own version of the story, otherwise he'd go mad. That was Regina's goal no doubt; at the very least she was trying to distract him, and it had worked. Even now she was probably immersed in some sort of plot that he should really be paying attention to, but whatever it was would have to wait until he knew for sure. He had to know.
He'd find Belle and watch her for just a little bit, just enough to assure himself that she was well and happy. He'd only stay a few minutes- a few hours at most- and never let her know he was there. He'd be able to move on after that. He just had to know.
Stretching out his senses, he scoured the air for any trace of her, frustrated when the familiar warmth of her spirit didn't respond to his call. Apparently she'd moved on from her provincial little village, no doubt on the arm of a prince who'd offered to show her the world she'd longed to see, the world he'd denied her by imprisoning her in the Dark Castle. He would have shown her the world eventually, he'd meant to, but- Better not to think about that. It was better this way.
Suddenly he cocked his head as he caught the vaguest trace of her, something familiar. It wasn't her but something close to her, something she'd owned. He couldn't quite put his finger on it, but he recognized it all the same. Following the faint trail, he moved deeper into the town, the mental scent growing stronger, faintly metallic. Her necklace. That was what he was sensing. She wasn't here but her gold necklace was. No doubt her prince had showered her with jewels, what need would she have for a simple gold pendant? That had belonged to her mother. That she never took off.
Perhaps she gave it to her father when she left with her prince, something to remember her by with more positive associations than a chipped cup. Surely that was it.
Rumpelstiltskin began moving faster, nearly running as he approached the heart of the village, a simple spell hiding him from the few people out on the streets. The trail was leading him away from the palace, the mounting evidence slowly growing too strong for even him to ignore. 'Sheliedsheliedshelied...' The trail ended abruptly at the village church, a simple building of white stone and glass windows with well-tended gravestones on a peaceful lawn. 'She lied. She lied.'
He swept his eyes over the small graveyard, searching for any signs of freshly-turned earth. He saw nothing until something outside the boundary of the wooden fence caught his eye.
They buried her on unconsecrated ground. It had been centuries since he believed in any kind of gods, but the thought made him rage. Anger roared through him, his blood burning with it. Too outraged even to manage the simplest spell, he sprinted towards the pile of earth, vaulting the fence to wind up on his knees on the freshly-stirred earth, scrabbling like an animal at the grave. The was no marker, not even a name; only a single red rose indicating the interred had once been beloved by anyone. He dug with bare hands, magic not even a possibility in his present state, dirt catching under his fingernails as he overturned handful after handful, desperate now.
After minutes or hours his fingers brushed silk, and Rumpelstiltskin keened like an animal in a trap as the signature of her necklace hung heavy in the air. "No, no, no, Belle, no." With shaking hands he brushed the dirt off the white shroud before gathering the bundle in his arms, cradling her like a bride, a cruel parody of how he'd held her after her fall from the ladder, but this time he hadn't been there to catch her. Eyes hot, he knelt with her in his arms, afraid to unveil her face and see the accusation in her sightless eyes.
Curious faces peered at him, the magic shielding him having long since slipped, trying to look without looking, afraid to rouse the anger of the dark one. With a snarl and a wave of his hand he drove them back, despising them all. Any one of them could have saved her, could have rescued her from her tower, could have contacted him if they were too cowardly to take the risk themselves, and no one had lifted a finger for the woman whose sacrifice had saved their village from the ogres. They didn't deserve to be this close to her, even in death.
A gesture brought them home to his workroom, a place she'd been ordered to stay away from for fear his clumsy Belle would upset something that could hurt her. 'So protective,' the voice in his head sneered at him, 'A fine job you did of caring for her.' He shook his head, trying to silence it. It didn't matter now. Nothing did.
Carefully, he rested her on the long table, closing his eyes for a moment to gather the strength to unveil her face. His fingers clutched the edge of the silken shroud for long minutes until he finally forced himself to pull it aside. 'Afraid to look on what you've done?' the little voice mocked, 'Look at it. Look at what you've done to her.'
His breath caught on a strangled sob as he finally opened his eyes. She was so beautiful even now, her waxen face serene under the jagged wounds inflicted by her tormentors. 'Scourges and flaying, oh Belle.' There wasn't a trace of her left, her spirit long since fled to somewhere he couldn't follow. Even so, he put his hands over her heart, forcing magic into the shell of his beloved. Healing was easy, a small matter of speeding up a body's natural processes, but her body was beyond helping itself. This then was not healing but repair. Gritting his teeth, he forced dead flesh to knit back together, broken bone to reshape itself as a whole. It drained him, but when he was done she lay before him as whole and perfect as she'd ever been, and just as dead as she'd been when he started.
With enough power he could force her heart to beat, circulating congealed blood through her veins until her face again flushed. He could compress her lungs, force air into her until her lips lost the tinge of blue. He could make her eyes open, make her walk, dance with him, lean trustingly into his arms, and none of it would bring her back from where she was. She'd be a human puppet operated by his magic, and the idea was too horrible even for him to contemplate.
Leaning down, he pressed his lips to hers, hoping beyond hope for a miracle. Her lips were cool beneath his but every bit as soft as he remembered, and what in the name of all the gods had he been thinking when he pushed her away? He looked hopefully into her face, but there was no glint of magic on her skin. No curse had done this to her, and there was nothing True Love's Kiss could do.
Nothing could bring back the dead. Every child learned that in the cradle. Yet, there was no being in the realm more powerful than he. There had to be a way. He would find it.
31 Years later- Storybrooke, Maine
The hospital burned.
The patients well enough to do so milled on the front lawn, trying to stay out of the way of the firefighters turning the well-kept grass into mud as they fought the blaze. Another, smaller group of bedraggled individuals was crouched under a tree, not seeming to notice the uproar. Jefferson, the maybe-mad-after-all hatter, stood cheerfully swinging an empty can of kerosene from hand to hand, and Sheriff Swan was trying to demand answers from anyone in a lab coat and read him his rights all at the same time as the mayor shouted ineffectual orders. Mr. Gold stood silently on the edge of the sidewalk, staring into the jaws of a trap.
It wasn't possible. Belle was gone, gone forever to a place where his magic could never reach her, try as he might. And he had tried, had tried every incantation he knew, every genii, every wand. Nothing had enough power to bring back the dead. Not even him. Why did he ever think he could offer her more than destruction?
This creature, then, was not Belle. It was a trick, a trap with her hair and eyes. A product of Regina's magic meant to drive him out of his head with the memory of what he'd lost, of what she stole from him. As though he could ever forget, even for one moment. There wasn't enough whiskey for that in this or any other world.
It was a trap, yes, but one Gold walked into willingly. He'd spent thirty-one years with nothing more than a chipped teacup to remind him of her face; a chance to spend a few moments gazing at this simulacrum of his beloved was more than he could resist. All he had to remember was that she wasn't Belle.
He was vaguely aware of the shouting. Over the conflagration that engulfed the hospital, Regina was insisting that someone take the girl, calling her dangerous, a threat to their quiet community. At the same time, Sheriff Swan was demanding to know more about this wing of the hospital that appeared on no public records, her suspicious mind already working overtime, no doubt hoping to find something with which to indict the mayor. In the confusion, few people noticed him, and those who did lacked the courage to try to stop him. He stood over her where she was coughing on the ground, and he had to remind himself again of who she was not, because the illusion was convincing, even up close.
He drove his cane into the muddy ground and braced himself as he bent down, brushing the tangled hair back from the simulacrum's face, meeting blank eyes. A heartbeat later he was on the ground in front of her, not noticing the pain in his leg as he dropped to his knees in the wet grass, fingers ploughing through her hair to cradle her skull, turning her face up to his. "Belle. Belle."
He wasn't sure if he was whispering her name or screaming it. He couldn't hear himself over the sound of his own heart pounding in his chest, a man thirty-one years dead suddenly returning to life. He could feel her. This was no glamor, no illusion. It never would have withstood his touch if it were. She was no clumsy copy of an irreplaceable original. She was Belle.
There was no recognition in her eyes, but it was of no matter. Belle was alive. Belle was with him once more, and no one would part them again. Belle was his. He shrugged off his coat and bundled it around her, her thin hospital garb no protection from the night air. In front of him the hospital burned, and behind him Regina had begun to scream, but it was of no matter. Belle was alive.
Once he would have spirited her away with a touch, and for the first time he felt the full weight of the damnable curse, now when it finally mattered. He wasn't sure he could get off the ground himself, much less carry her, and why had he not thought to leave a provision in the curse allowing him to keep his supernatural strength along with his memories?
It was too late to alter such things now, and help came from an unexpected source as he clutched his cane and struggled to his feet, the effort of releasing his hold on Belle taking all the strength he had. Sheriff Swan pulled him upright, making sure he had his feet under him before releasing his arm. "The mayor says she's dangerous."
He bared his teeth at her, a pure animal threat, all his sophistication gone. "D'you have any idea how long I've waited for her?" The question was rhetorical, and his voice shook, cracking with tension, "You'll not take her from me."
Whatever madness was in his eyes convinced her not to argue. "I'm certainly not going to start trusting our Lady Mayor now," she conceded, stepping back, and he reached down for Belle's hand, not sure he could lift her if she didn't cooperate.
"You are not a fool, Miss Swan," he granted her, his teeth grinding with tension as he waited to see if Belle would accept him. "Nor is your son. Listen to him."
It mattered now in a way it never had before. She was destined to break the curse, but he wanted it broken now, wanted to see Regina defeated, destroyed, in pieces, because she lied to him so thoroughly that even he believed it. His Belle was alive, and he had been kept from her.
Small fingers wrapped around his, and he let out his breath on a soundless sigh. He drew her to her feet, keeping her close enough to feel her warmth as Emma asked, "You mean the curse?"
"Break it," he snarled, the gentleness of his hands belying his tone as he tugged his coat tighter around Belle's slight form. She was thinner now, and he misliked what that might mean. "I've waited thirty-one years for my happy ending. My patience is running thin."
He left Emma gaping behind him, keeping Belle close by his side as they began the walk to his house. With his bad leg, the two miles generally felt long, but tonight the distance was negligible. She had been less than two miles away from him for the past twenty-eight years; the thought made him queasy.
"Not far now, dearie," he promised her, although she seemed to take no notice of the journey. She seemed to take no notice of anything, which was so unlike his curious Belle that it made him fear more of her had been lost than he could restore.
He could not stop looking at her, his eyes searching her face greedily, unwilling even to blink for fear of missing something. He could see her, touch her, breathe her in, and he would hold her to her promise even if she never remembered him. She promised to stay with him forever, and he would never again release her. More fool he for ever thinking her father could protect her.
They made the walk in silence, and every second he longed to hear her voice asking questions or teasing him, but he'd take whatever he could get because Belle was alive. He ushered her up the stairs of his house, not entirely sure what to do now. He'd dreamt of this moment for thirty-one years, but in his dreams Belle was always her lively self, either throwing herself into his arms and granting forgiveness for every sin he'd committed against her, or- in his more self-loathing moments- lambasting him for his mistrust and abandonment until he sobbed at her feet and begged for her pardon. He'd never known her to be quiet, and it frightened him.
Overwhelmed by her reality, he concentrated on the basics. She was filthy and underdressed, and his Belle always hated being mucky. He pulled her along behind him, heading for the bathroom. "We'll soon have you feeling better, dearie. You must be frozen."
She stood quietly while he filled the bathtub with hot water, digging around in his cabinets until he found a bottle of shower gel that made acceptable bubbles once he'd poured most of it in.
He needed to leave her alone to bathe, couldn't intrude on her privacy, but the thought of being separated from her by so much as a closed door in his own house was unbearable. He'd waited thirty-one years to see her face again, and to look away might well kill him.
"I'll just..." he began reluctantly and trailed off when she didn't even look at the bathtub, "Belle?"
Testing a theory, he removed his jacket from her shoulders. She didn't so much as blink, showing no awareness of anything happening around her. It could have been a blessing. If she wasn't self-aware, she wouldn't have felt the long years passing in her cell. The other possibility was that those years were exactly what had put her in this state: twenty-eight years of confinement in Storybrooke, and it was impossible to know what had happened to her before that. Scourges and flaying, imprisonment, torture, none of the options were good.
Telling himself he wouldn't look, Gold eased off her hospital-issue clothes and guided her into the water, breaking his own mental promise almost immediately, because he had to know. Had any of Regina's words been true? There wasn't a mark on her; her skin as flawless as he'd always dreamed it would be, as flawless as he'd made her once he'd found her shattered body.
Rage filled him as the truth of the situation finally hit him. Regina had stolen her and created a copy, a perfect replica with the injuries he'd expected to see, and put Belle's necklace around its neck. He'd spent three years struggling to reanimate a simulacrum, wasting his time when Belle was in need of rescue.
He wasn't sure who he hated more in that moment: Regina for planting the simulacrum or himself for falling for her trick. He closed his eyes and took a breath, forcing the emotions back. Here and now they didn't matter. Belle was alive.
He rested his hand on the side of her face, pleased to find her skin warming from its earlier chill. He sat down on the side of the tub, watching as her skin regained its color, the sweet flush returning to her too-pale cheeks. When perspiration started to bead along her forehead, he picked up a soft cloth and the soap, bathing her like a cherished child. Whatever had happened to her he would fix it, but first he had to let her know that she was protected. No one would ever harm her again.
Carefully, he washed her hair, trying not to pull on her snarled locks. Once she was dry and enveloped in his robe, he guided her toward the bed, sitting down behind her as he gently worked the tangles out of her hair. From the looks of it, it hadn't been brushed in weeks, and he ground his teeth at this sign of neglect.
"You're safe now, Belle," he promised, resting his head on her shoulder and breathing her in, the longed-for scent of her skin mingling with the scent of his own bath products like he'd marked her as his own. "I will never let anyone hurt you again."
When she didn't respond, he sighed and pressed a tender kiss to the side of her face, then pulled back enough to pull her damp hair into a loose braid so it wouldn't tangle in her sleep. He tucked her into his bed, breathing hard at the picture she made there where he had dreamed her so many times over the years. With her eyes closed, he could almost imagine she was whole and well once again.
He stretched out fully-clothed beside her on top of the covers and just watched her, his eyes greedily taking in every rise and fall of her chest, proof that she was alive and with him once again.
Belle was so still that only the slight deepening of her breath indicated that she that she had slipped into sleep, and Gold's brow furrowed as he tried to figure out what could be causing her catatonia. He'd examined every inch of her body as he bathed her, finding her every bit as flawless as he'd always imagined she would be. There were no scars, no burns, nothing to indicate that any portion of the queen's story had been the truth. The sense of relief left him shaking. For years he'd had nightmare after nightmare, seeing Belle abused, tortured, broken, and to know she hadn't suffered like that made him feel like the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders.
However the lack of visible signs of torture didn't do anything to explain her near-mindless state. Gold brushed her hair away from her temples, searching for any sign of of injury and finding nothing. He frowned, closing his eyes and gathering the tattered remains of his power before Looking with his other senses.
The shock sent him reeling out of her mind and nearly off the bed as well. He doubled over, bracing his hands on his knees as he retched, swallowing a mouthful of bile that made his throat burn. No injury had done this to Belle. This was magically caused, the most revolting magic he'd ever seen.
Inhaling deeply, he braced himself and Looked again, hoping it wasn't as bad as his first impression had been. If anything, it was worse. Every part of her spirit was encased in thick, ropey strands of dark magic, glistening wetly and pulsating with life. The strands leached off her nervous system in more places than he could count, using her own life energy to sustain the spell.
And what a spell it was. He recognized the livid, bruise-purple coloring that was Regina's signature, but this looked nothing like the elegant spellwork he associated with the queen. It reminded him of nothing more than a cage that had been fortified over the years with every bit of wood and metal the builder could get his hands on, nailing piece upon piece until the original shape had been lost completely. Spell-lines that had no business being in contact were soldered together with no care for the subject, the only object being to entrap. This was a spell never meant to be released or broken.
He peered deeper into the heart of it, wondering it any part of his beloved even still existed or if she'd been snuffed out completely. When he Looked directly he saw only the glistening cage, but peripherally he had the impression of a golden flame beating violently against the walls of its prison. Belle, he projected, knowing it was unlikely she could hear him but needing to speak to her nonetheless, Belle, I'm here. I'll get you out. Oh Belle, I'm so sorry.
At the height of his powers with his workroom at his disposal, it would have taken Rumpelstiltskin a month to untangle the glistening strands of magic imprisoning her spirit. Here, cut off from the magic of the Enchanted Forest with only his own reserves to draw on, Gold didn't even know where to start.
Well, there was always one chance.
He cupped her chin and carefully tilted her head back just enough for him to bend down and press his lips to hers. Her mouth was as warm and petal-soft as he'd remembered it being every day for thirty-one years. Keeping his love for her uppermost in his mind, he pressed a little deeper, sucking gently at her bottom lip for just a moment before releasing her. With a sigh he pulled away from her while he still had the strength to do so and delved once more into her mind. The sticky strands of magic still permeated her soul, True Love's Kiss not having had the slightest impact.
He adjusted the blankets over her, feeling suddenly very old and very tired. Although he hadn't really believed it was a curse oppressing her, he would very much have liked to have been wrong just this once.
There was no choice but to do things the hard way, but when had anything ever been easy when it came to Belle? He should leave her to sleep in peace, but the part of him that was eternally craven rebelled at the thought. His fears whispered to him, reminding him that Regina would have no qualms about taking Belle away from him by force if necessary, that Belle herself could wander away if she woke up alone in a strange room.
The last thought settled him, and he stretched out on the bed beside her again, remaining on top of the blankets to create a facsimile of distance even as he wrapped his fingers around her braid, anchoring himself in her reality. Belle might need him in the night, might be frightened by her new circumstances, and he would move heaven and earth to spare her any more pain. If only he'd made that choice long ago, how different things could have been.
Gold didn't expect to sleep. In truth, he didn't think he'd be able to take his eyes off of her long enough to even make the attempt. Belle was alive, at his side, in his bed, and his happy ending was suddenly within his grasp. He'd disassemble the spell imprisoning her if it took him years, and they'd be together even if Emma never managed to break the curse. He'd made the wrong decision once but never again. She was his choice, now and forever. Together they would find his son, and the three of them could be the family they were always meant to be.
The part of him that had throbbed with rage and guilt for thirty-one years quieted, leaving him feeling more at peace than he could remember since their halcyonic days at the Dark Castle, and his eyes slipped closed despite his best intentions, sending him into a sleep unmarred by nightmares.
0 0 0 0 0
It took Gold a week to find a starting point, one piece of the spell that seemed newer and weaker than the rest. It frustrated him to have accomplished so little, knowing that the proper application of power at just the right point would shatter the cage that imprisoned Belle. He wasn't willing to take the chance it would shatter her spirit along with it.
So he spent time each night once she'd fallen asleep searching endlessly for a way in until his reserves were drained, and he had no choice but to stop. He always waited until she fell asleep beside him to begin, not wanting to subject her to the feel of him poking around in her head. From the state of her she'd had quite enough of that.
By day he kept her close, never straying more than ten paces from her side. He trusted her safety to no one else; it was only a matter of time before Regina moved against them. In the meantime he experimented, seeing what the spell would permit her to do. The answer quickly proved to be very little.
Belle could feed herself if he made sure her food was cut into bite-sized pieces. She would drink if he guided her hand to her cup. She would walk beside him if he held her hand or her arm. She could take care of necessities if he escorted her to the bathroom.
She couldn't bathe or dress herself, so he cared for her like a child, trying to touch without touching, look without looking, because there was no way to gain her consent. She couldn't examine her surroundings or ask questions. She couldn't read.
The last one devastated him. So often when he'd imagined Belle over the long years, he'd envisioned her with a book in her hand. He saw her curled up in the library at the Dark Castle, her chores forgotten as she lost herself in a story. He pictured her lying on a sofa in his Storybrooke home, sunlight through stained glass turning her into a work of art that he was free to admire endlessly as her face flickered with the emotions raised by her book. Reading was ever Belle's best comfort, and Regina had stolen that from her.
He placed books in her hands anyway, watching as she stroked the cover and binding, her face showing no sign that she knew what her fingers were doing. He hoped some part of her was aware of the books' presence and found them comforting. Otherwise she spent her days seated in a rocking chair in the back room of the pawnshop, hidden away from prying eyes, from any eyes other than his own. The sheriff had dropped by to check on her on several occasions, but she seemed inclined to let them be once she saw Belle was being well cared for. In a way, Gold was even grateful. Belle deserved an entire town full of people devoted to her welfare to make up for her years of neglect. Instead she had him.
He knew Emma was dying to ask about the curse, but her innate skepticism kept her from doing so. She'd be watching more closely now that he'd spoken though. She'd start to pick up on the patterns and symbols that permeated all of their lives, and in time she would believe. He had to trust in that because he didn't have time to lead her by the hand any longer. He had a spell to break.
Each night he chipped away at it a little more, until one night three weeks after Belle's miraculous return to him, he finally managed to pry one sticky thread of the spell up enough to get his mental fingers under it and pull. Sweat beaded on his forehead, the attempt exhausting him physically as much as mentally, but there was no stopping now. He kept applying pressure until he finally pulled the thing loose, one end of it now freed from Belle's mind. He followed it to its terminal end and kept pulling, hopeful at last that he would be able to begin untangling it.
His reserves were running out, but he was so close to success that Gold couldn't bring himself to stop. Carefully, he pried at the edges of the spell, putting inexorable pressure on the fat, purple strand. He jolted back physically as well as mentally when it suddenly came free, and he found himself holding the wriggling horror in his own mind as it writhed, looking for something to feed upon. Revolted, he incinerated it with a burst of power he didn't really have to spare, but the satisfaction of destroying one part of what had been oppressing Belle was too tempting to resist.
He could feel the backlash immediately and knew he'd overextended himself. The power channels in his mind were throbbing, burnt raw by his action, but he'd do it again in a heartbeat. Wanting nothing more than to collapse and recharge, he brushed his fingers against Belle's temple, needing the touch to allow him to enter her mind again. He had to verify that he'd done no damage by uprooting part of the spell, only after that could he sleep.
Looking required little power, but he could still feel it moving like acid through his damaged channels. He'd gone overboard, but it was worth it the moment he found the spot the strand had been attached pink and pulsing with life. It would be sensitive for a short time, like freshly-healed skin, but at least one small part of Belle was free of the hideous thing.
A wave of dizziness slammed into him the second he retreated from her mind, and he no longer had the energy to even keep his head up. He dropped onto the pillow, his face buried in her hair, its warm scent comforting him as his overtaxed mind drop-kicked him into sleep.
0 0 0 0 0
Twenty-eight years was plenty of time to set a habit, and true to form, Gold woke at his normal time, feeling like he could still use another twenty hours of sleep. He was still in the same position he'd collapsed in the previous night: his face buried in Belle's hair, his arm draped heavily around her waist. All he wanted to do was roll over and pull her into him, snuggling with her until his head felt less likely to explode at any moment.
His mouth was bone-dry though, and Belle might not appreciate having him wrapped around her in her current state. Even if he'd miraculously managed to heal her in his sleep, she still might not appreciate his embrace, he thought morbidly. He hauled himself out of bed, needing the cane just to stay upright as he hobbled the short distance to the small bathroom. He downed a glass of water and braced himself on the sink as he looked into the mirror above it, wincing despite himself.
His efforts of the night before had left him looking even more drawn and careworn than usual, his skin taking on a faint gray sheen in the morning light that looked far too familiar for comfort. He barked a short, humorless laugh, shaking his head at his reflection. "You know, Belle, just once- in just one world- I'd like to be handsome for you."
He spoke without thinking, not expecting any kind of response. When he stepped back into the bedroom, he drew up short, not believing his eyes. Belle was looking at him.
She was lying just where he'd left her, but her eyes were open, and she was looking at him. At him, not through him like she'd been doing for the past month. For the first time there was awareness in her eyes, a sense of the personality trapped beneath layer upon layer of dark magic. "Belle?" he murmured, limping closer. To move too quickly might frighten her, but he couldn't stay away, not when he could finally see her in her eyes. "Do you remember anything? Do you... do you know me?"
It was the last question that was most important, but his interest in the answer evaporated immediately when he saw her eyes widen in panic. "Belle?" he asked again and cursed himself. She couldn't respond, and he didn't even know if she could understand him. Asking questions would get them nowhere. "You're safe here, dearie. No one will harm you."
Belle's gaze shifted to his mouth, watching his lips move with intense focus, and that gave him a working theory: she couldn't hear him. It made an awful kind of sense. The curse was affecting everything else, why not her most basic senses? He tried again, taking care to shape the words as clearly as possible in hopes she'd be able to read his lips, "You're safe, Belle. I won't let anything hurt you."
He thought he saw some understanding dawn in her eyes, which he opted to take as a good sign. Emboldened, he continued, "You're under a spell. I'm going to break it, but it will take time."
He still wasn't sure if she knew who he was, but he decided to content himself with the knowledge that she didn't look nearly as frightened now. "Come along, dearie; it's a new day."
She didn't move, just looked back steadily, and at that moment he realized what he'd done. He'd given her back her awareness, but her motor skills were still blocked by the spells as surely as her hearing and voice were. She might not be trapped in her own mind any longer, but now she was trapped in a body that refused to obey her commands. He couldn't imagine a worse fate for his adventurous Belle. It was no kindness that he'd done her, especially since she would have the humiliation of knowing he was caring for her.
For a moment he was tempted to leave her in the bed and give her her privacy, but he dismissed that notion as cowardice. He'd abandoned her once and paid the price for thirty-one years. He would never do it again. Instead, he took her hand, relieved when she still followed him as obediently as ever. The last thing he wanted was to have to manhandle her again. They'd both had enough of that for two lifetimes.
He was careful with the shower temperature, wanting her to be as comfortable as she could with him bathing her. Once he was satisfied, he put his hand under her chin and turned her face up to his. "I'm sorry, Belle," he mouthed clearly, hoping she could understand, "I won't... look." It was a ridiculous statement for how could he do anything else? Moving behind her, he tried to let her keep as much dignity as he could as he stripped to his boxers and eased her nightgown off before urging her into the spray of warm water, careful to keep her facing away from him. He hoped the barrier of the washcloth between his hand and her body would be enough to spare her certain disgust at his touch as he bathed her, trying to keep his hands as soothing and impersonal as possible. Even so, it wasn't until he had her back on the bed and wrapped in several fluffy towels that he relaxed at all, feeling like he'd been lucky to escape with his sanity. Once he finally finished breaking her spell, Belle was going to kill him.
He finished his own morning ablutions as quickly as possible and returned to her side, attempting to dress her without removing her towel. He was reasonably successful, and it wasn't until he was arranging the skirt of her sundress just so that he wondered what she must think of the clothes he'd chosen for her: a blue dress with a square neckline and a hem that reached her calves with a soft white cardigan against the chilly air. With a few minor adjustments she could have left the Dark Castle that morning. The only way he could be more obvious would be to tell her directly that he hadn't moved on, that he'd never move on, and he'd do anything if she'd only give him another chance.
That would have to wait until later though. For now they had a shop to open, and he had a spell to break. Maybe she'd be grateful. He had no illusions that he'd ever have her love again, but he could settle for her gratitude. He would settle for anything as long as she stayed and never left again.
0 0 0 0 0
Breaking the spell was slow, fiddly, exhausting work. Gold had a perpetual splitting headache caused by his overuse of magic in a world never intended for it, but he was too impatient to take the time to recharge properly or to heal. Belle needed him to be strong for her, to fight for her, and he wouldn't let her down again. He would free her from the dark magic, and then he'd let her go if that was what she wished. She'd been trapped for too long; he couldn't keep her if she didn't want to stay.
The next thing to return was her hearing, and it was all he could do not to simply babble apologies and explanations at her that would no doubt only irritate her further since she couldn't argue with him. Instead he contented himself with the bare minimum- You were right. I'm sorry. I love you- and put everything else on his mental list of things they needed to discuss. Otherwise he told her stories about the denizens of Storybrooke, the objects in the house and the shop, the things he'd seen as the Dark One, anything to distract or amuse her.
News filtered in from the outside world, and he shared it with her, hoping she'd be pleased to hear that Sheriff Swan was busily making Regina's life a living hell, the discovery of the secret hospital wing serving as just the leverage she needed. For his part, he cared only that Regina was too distracted to concern herself with them. He'd never claimed to be a hero, and his only goal was to keep plucking at the spell in hopes of at least restoring Belle's smile.
Unfortunately her smile proved as elusive as her voice, and for a time nothing he did seemed to impact her at all. Gold knew he was untangling the spell, he could see the pieces breaking off, but Belle's condition remained unchanged until one morning he woke up with a migraine to an empty bed and the sound of running water.
"Belle?" her name was a strangled gasp as he jolted out of the bed, the surge of hope overwhelming the pain in his skull. He ignored his cane as he limped toward the bathroom door, plastering himself against it as he listened for sounds of movement or, better still, her voice.
He didn't want to intrude on her, but when he heard nothing his fear got the better of him. What if she wasn't in there at all? What if Regina had stolen her and this was just a distraction? "Belle, if you don't say something, I'm coming in."
After a count of three he did just that, finding her standing under the shower spray, her lips blue. A look at the shower control told him the water should be warm, but it wasn't. He could only assume she'd been standing there so long the hot water had run out.
Drying her off quickly, he got her back in the bed and wrapped in blankets, trying to warm her as he wondered what the hell had happened. She'd moved on her own, but whatever control she'd regained of her body seemed to have been fleeting. He rested his hand on the side of her face to check her body temperature, reading the misery and frustration in her eyes. "You're getting better, dearie," he tried to reassure her, "The spell is coming apart. It won't be much longer."
He had to work faster. His little Belle was relying on him, and this was taking far too long. She needed to be free. "Here, let me," he murmured, adjusting his hold until his fingers touched her temples and he slid carefully into her mind, looking for the next piece of the spell to uproot.
The burnt power channels in his mind protested, screaming in agony as he forced the magic to work, struggling to pry up just one more piece. With a grunt of effort, he yanked it free, resurfacing from her mind to find something warm and wet trickling down his face. It took him two tries to lift his hand, and when he finally managed it, his fingers came away slicked with blood. His nose was bleeding.
Grabbing a handful of tissues, he mopped up the gore, relieved that the bleeding stopped fairly quickly. His vision was wavering slightly around the edges and his head felt like it might fall off his shoulders, but he didn't have time to worry about that right now. He needed to take care of Belle. It was morning; she was probably hungry.
"Wait here," he told her, his own quiet voice making his eardrums throb. Even with his cane, getting to the kitchen was touch and go, and he hoped she'd be satisfied with a bagel, because he didn't think he could manage anything more complicated than that. Just carrying that back to the bedroom was a challenge.
He helped her sit up and put the plate in her lap before collapsing next to her, unable to keep his eyes open for another second. When next he woke, feeling like he was clawing his way to the surface through layers of earth, his head was resting on her legs. Reluctantly he sat up, his head still throbbing even after his nap. "Sorry, dearie," he muttered, hoping he hadn't done anything more to her than crawl into her lap. The gods knew she certainly couldn't tell him if he had.
0 0 0 0 0
The nosebleeds got more frequent after that as Gold tore at the spell with increasing desperation. He was so close. Belle could do so many more things now. She could shower on her own. She could walk around the house and look at things. She could even read for brief periods of time, and the never ending throb of his head was a small price to pay for that.
Every time he got near her she seemed to freeze up like he'd tripped a switch. He hadn't been paying much attention to what the spell actually did, too busy simply unraveling it, but he could make a guess. Regina would have wanted Belle to be unable to talk with anyone. The deepest parts of the spell, the ones he hadn't been able to get to yet, were probably inhibiting all her communication abilities up to and including body language. The queen was nothing if not thorough.
Gold wondered if Belle would react this way to anyone or just to him, but there was no way to test his theory. Leaving the house wasn't really an option any more. Parts of his brain felt like they were smoking from his constant overuse of magic, and just getting from the bedroom to the bathroom to the kitchen took all of his strength. Opening the shop was an impossibility. There would be time enough for that once he'd freed Belle.
She was imprisoned in his house as much as she'd been locked up beneath the hospital, and he felt guilty about that, but at least this time she had a more comfortable cell. It wouldn't be much longer. He just had to keep peeling away the spell and soon she'd be able to do as she pleased.
Her first step would no doubt involve getting the hell away from him, but Gold was prepared to pay that price too. She was alive again, and he didn't have the right to ask the universe for more of a miracle than that. Already she seemed to try to evade him, and he tried to leave her alone except for their twice-daily spell-breaking sessions. Even then he could see anguish in her eyes at having him so close to her.
Looking himself in the mirror, he couldn't blame her. He looked ancient, face pale and drawn, eyes bloodshot, and his nose gushed at the slightest provocation. He was breaking down more every day even as she returned more and more to herself.
One day he found her sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by bits of paper, a pen clasped tightly in her fingers. Leaning heavily on his cane, he looked at what she'd produced: swirls and dashes that looked like they were attempts at writing made by someone who'd never actually seen an alphabet. Her eyes were frustrated and desolate in her impassive face, and he patted her shoulder gently. "It won't be much longer, dearie. We're almost there."
She took to hiding from him when it was time for one of their sessions, and guilt churned in his gut every time he found her and forced her to endure his presence in her mind. He prayed it didn't hurt her; it shouldn't. "I'm so sorry, Belle. It's almost over. You're almost free."
More often than not he woke up with his head in her lap, too shaky to pull himself away from her. Apparently his body had decided it needed to spend as much time close to Belle as it could get, because his mind was screaming at him to leave her in peace. Sometimes he woke up to see her face wet with tears, and he wished he had the strength to wipe them away.
0 0 0 0 0
The days bled together. Gold had lost all track of time, aware of only two different periods: when it was time to break Belle's spell and when it was time to rest. At some point he'd apparently unlocked her cooking abilities, because frequently when he clawed his way out of sleep he'd find a bowl of soup sitting on the nightstand waiting for him. Chewing took more than he had, but soup he could manage, and he was grateful for it. If Belle was feeding him, she must be eating too, and that was a relief because he wasn't sure if he could manage to prepare anything for her anymore.
She'd stopped hiding when it was time for one of their sessions, and he was grateful for that too. Finding her took more strength than he had most days, and he had more energy to devote to breaking her spell if she came to him willingly. Her eyes were huge in her pale face, agony in their depths, but she'd stopped fighting him.
His nose oozed almost constantly now. To his disgust he'd had to give up on tissues and pocket squares in favor of a kitchen towel to stem the blood. No wonder Belle didn't want him anywhere near her. He revolted himself. He barely recognized the gaunt man he saw in the mirror, and he was starting to look his age- his real age.
Still, he only had to subject her to him for a little longer. He'd managed to tear off the last of the additions to the spell the previous night until only the original entrapment spell was left. It was a pretty piece of work- he could recognize that as a craftsman- and he couldn't wait to destroy it.
He skipped their morning session that day, registering the relief in her eyes when he let her leave the bed without invading her mind. He wanted to muster as much strength as he could for that night, certain that he could finally set her free. If all went well, he'd be able to hear her voice that night.
He kept that thought at the forefront of his mind as he touched her temple that evening. "This is it, dearie," he promised her, "This should be the last time." She blinked at him, then closed her haunted eyes as he slipped into her mind.
At first he just looked around, double-checking that all the remnants of the spell were gone and not trying to regenerate themselves. He'd been thorough, and there was nothing left but Belle herself and the hideous cage at the center of her being, enclosing her spirit. Pleased with his handiwork, Gold moved closer.
He caught hold of the cage and dragged it from side to side, looking for weak points. It creaked and struggled, fighting him with the determination of a living thing. It was a living thing after all these years, mindless but strong. It was too strong for him to simply rip apart as he wanted, and for a moment he almost despaired, but then he saw it: a weakness.
His physical body was shaking, trembling so hard he could barely keep his fingers against her temple. Something hot and wet poured down his face, and Gold gritted his teeth and pressed harder. He was so, so close.
The golden flame of Belle's spirit was right in front of him now, flickering frantically, and that gave him the strength he needed to regroup and finish this. She was so very nearly free. Almost there, love.
STOP THIS NOW her spirit screamed at him, and it felt so good to finally hear her mental voice that he barely registered what she was saying.
With the last strength he had, Gold grasped the weak point and yanked. The cage came apart in his hands, the dark magic lashing out violently at its attacker and he dragged it into his own mind, removing its hideous taint from Belle.
It wriggled and writhed, lashing out, and he struggled to contain it, his nervous system shorting out. Dimly he was aware of his body moving, convulsing, but all his attention was fixed on subduing the dark magic that yowled and burned and hurt.
At his best, he could have banished it with a thought, but Gold wasn't at his best and hadn't been for months. He was a weak old man and the magic was strong and angry, and the best he could do was hope to take it with him.
Grabbing hold of the miserable thing, he dug his nails into it and let himself fall down down down.
0 0 0 0 0
Warm fingers were carding through his hair again and again, a sweet voice murmuring words that didn't match the gentle tone, "You idiot. You raging moron. How could you do this to yourself? What were you thinking? Just don't die. Please don't die. If you die, I swear I will kill you myself. Do you hear me, Rumpelstiltskin? I will kill you if you don't wake up. Wake up. Please wake up."
For a moment there was softness and comfort, then his nerve endings woke up and the pain nearly sent him spiraling back into unconsciousness. Every part of him throbbed. Even his hair hurt.
The voice kept talking as he whimpered, "That's it, that's right. Wake up. You can wake up now. Open your eyes for me."
He needed to obey that voice although he wasn't sure why. Gold forced his eyes open, the world blurred and indistinct as he blinked and blinked again. The first thing he was able to make out was an expanse of red on white, but he still wasn't sure what he was seeing.
The warm fingers stopped petting his hair, and he groaned in protest, but then arms went around him and hugged him tight, and that felt so nice he didn't argue. "Do you know where you are? Do you know what happened?" the voice coaxed.
He knew that voice. He knew it but it had been so long, so long... "Belle?" he croaked, scarcely daring to believe it was really her he was hearing.
"That's right, it's me. I'm back," she whispered, and he felt a kiss being pressed to the crown of his head. Slowly his vision started to clear, and he realized that the white was the material of her nightgown which was absolutely soaked in blood.
He made some kind of strangled noise, needing to get up and help her, but he couldn't even lift his head, his body feeling impossibly heavy. "You're hurt..."
"Hmm? No, that's yours. On the bright side, your nose has finally stopped bleeding." Satisfied that she was unharmed, he nuzzled closer to her, realizing that his head was pillowed on her breasts.
"Freed you," he said, feeling a little smug. Even Regina at her best had proved to be no match for him even cut off from the Enchanted Forest's reserves of power.
"Yes, you did. And you damned well near killed yourself doing it," Belle's voice rose, losing the soothing note and making his head throb, "You were convulsing. You stopped breathing. I thought you were going to die."
"Didn't," he protested weakly, wishing she'd stop yelling and go back to cuddling him. He'd liked the cuddling. Instead she slid her fingers into his hair and tugged his head away from her breast so she could see his face.
"Now listen to me, you stubborn, self-destructive lunatic," Belle stared into his eyes, her pretty face tight with anger, and it felt so good to finally see an emotion on her face that Gold didn't even care that she was upset with him, "If you ever do something like that again, I will find your dagger and put so many compulsions on you that you can't walk across a room without my permission. Do you understand me?"
He nodded and regretted it when his brain sloshed inside his skull. Belle's face softened at his moan of pain. "Good." Keeping one hand buried in his hair she leaned down and slanted her lips over his in a tender kiss that made all the pain instantly negligible. "Thank you."
"Welcome, love," he managed as she lowered his head back to her breast, and his eyes slid shut at the blissful comfort of her touch. He'd saved Belle, and she was still here, and nothing else was important.
Her fingers stroked through his hair hypnotically, and he snuggled closer. "You're not getting out of this bed until I put you back together," she told him, her voice once again slipping into its soothing tone, "I can't live happily ever after with you if you're dead from magic overload."
That was a fair point, he had to admit. If he wasn't already mostly asleep, he'd tell her so. He'd tell her when he woke up, he decided. They had forever now. In between breaths he slipped into sleep, content to know that she'd be there when he woke up.