He tries not to think about it.
This is difficult, because it's all he wants to think about. Every hour of every day, he'd be happy to simply lie on the floor of the ballroom and remember the moment she first touched his lips with hers; the moaning, whimpering sound she made when he touched her; the look of pure ecstasy when she climaxed around his hand.
But now she's inching around him, walking on eggshells.
He doesn't know what he was thinking, pushing past all those careful boundaries, allowing desire and impulse – two things Dark Ones can usually control – to slip through the cracks and rule his mind.
And she'd said she loved him.
That's the most difficult thing to avoid: they're skirting around each other, neither one of them sure of how to approach the other. If she doesn't know how to handle his actions, he has no idea at all of how to deal with her words.
If he goes and confronts her about it, about what she said and what he did, then he's just handing her an opportunity to tear him down. This distance is killing him, but he can't imagine how awful their lives could become if, because of what happened, they stopped even being friends.
She's his only friend in the world. If he lost that, even the illusion of that, then flying off the deep end would be an understatement.
He really, really wishes she'd make the first move. It's easier when she's forward and he's in control, able to accept or reject her affection: it's easier when he has the control.
This time, she doesn't say anything. She talks about the weather, mentions a new book she's found or asks what he wants for dinner. She keeps talking and yet she never actually says a word.
Then she disappears. She cleans wings of the castle he himself never knew they had, she hides in secluded corners of the library, and she goes for long walks in the grounds for hours at a time.
After two weeks of this, Rumpelstiltskin has started to notice things.
His sense of her is heightened. All of a sudden, he can tell if she's just walked down a corridor from the scent of her perfume still lingering in the air. He can spot her turquoise cloak on the far lawn from the windows of the castle. He even starts to take notice of her regular routine; of the room she most likes to sit in when its warm and the route she takes to get from the dining room to her bedroom.
She's almost more conspicuous in her absence than she was when she was always around.
With each passing day, the wall between them grows thicker, and he expects more force will be needed to break it. By fifteen days in, he thinks one of them will have to nearly die in order to bring it down.
But of course, it doesn't happen that way.
The breaking point happens in the corridor outside her bedroom. He's strolling through the castle, meandering his way to the room with his spinning wheel, playing absently with the dust in the air where the sun hits it through the windows.
He stops dead when he sees her. She doesn't see him: she's got her head buried in a book, and he's content to just… watch. He adores the way her eyebrows furrow in concentration, how she chews on her bottom lip without even realising it.
She glances up, probably to make sure there are no obstacles coming her way, and that's when she sees him.
They've been around each other several times since that day in the library. But it's always been planned, with both of them knowing in advance when and where they would be required to act normally, smile and make conversation.
Now they're stuck, caught off-guard, and he feels he has to say something, "Hello, Belle."
Her name rolls off his tongue, and he wonders how many times he's actually said it since she arrived. To him women are usually 'dearie', and she is no exception.
Except that day in the library, a treacherous little inner voice reminds him, when she was 'love'.
"Hello." She smiles, and his heart skips. Since when does his heart skip?
"Long time no see." He smiles, walks toward her, and watches the puzzlement flash across her face.
"Indeed, lunch was all of two hours ago."
"You dined with me for fifteen minutes, exactly, then excused yourself." He corrects, coming to a stop two feet in front of her, closer than either of them are entirely comfortable with in that moment. "Was something wrong with the meal?"
"No, it was fine. I made it, so at least it was edible."
"Dangerous words," he growls, and watches her shiver. He smiles to himself, pleased and more than a little reassured, "I sustained myself perfectly well before you arrived."
"You could happily live off strawberry jam and boiled eggs," she's smiling at him, but there's a challenge in her eyes, "I've seen how you live when I'm not around."
That, at least, is true. He reckons it must be a side-effect of what he is now, that he could eat an entire jar of jam and call it dinner.
"So why were you so quick to leave?"
"This is a really good book." She comments.
"That may be true, but it doesn't answer the question."
"I know, but why are you asking now?"
He's thrown off balance, "Excuse me?"
"Things have been just plain weird for weeks now, why are you asking me about it today?"
He doesn't know how to answer. It's a strange feeling for him, this sense of powerlessness in front of someone else: she's taken his words.
"Because you're here. I thought I might as well."
"Yes, but why did it take you so long?"
"Well…" he spreads his hands, "You're never around long enough to ask."
"And you were a little bit scared." she adds, with that infuriating little smile that exists to tell him that she knows him far too well.
"You don't scare me, love."
There it is again: 'love'. He doesn't know why he keeps calling her that.
"Oh yes I do." She's so close now that, with one more step, they'd be touching chest-to-chest.
"And what makes you think that?"
She leans up, so her lips are right by his ear, and whispers, "Because I love you, and you don't know what to do with that."
His breath catches, and she pulls away, still smiling. There is no insecurity in her gaze, as if she's just accepted how she feels and doesn't care if he can't reciprocate.
It'd be easy for him to do that: to call himself incapable of loving anyone or anything. He could push her away and go back to life pre-Belle, where his closest contact was a Queen who still spends most of her life trying to either squeeze herself into the most audaciously evil-looking clothing, or make everyone as miserable and lonely as she is.
But he looks down at Belle, and wonders if that isn't already impossible. He can feel his feelings written all over his face, and in that moment, he declares defeat.
He reaches down and grips her shoulders, bringing her up as he moves down to kiss her, hard and unrelentingly, not allowing any pause for breath. He can feel her smile against his lips as she wraps her arms around his neck, moulding herself to him and holding on tight.
And it feels incredible. It feels like everything he remembers from the library, and every dream of her he's had since. He commits every sensation, every exquisite detail of her, to memory.
Because they live in the world, and who knows better than Rumpelstiltskin how fleeting true happiness could be?
When they finally break away, she's laughing. Her face is such a picture of pure joy, so bright and alive, that he can't help leaning back in to kiss her again, just once, just lightly.
Then a wicked, wonderful thought slips into his mind. He bends down, too fast for her to register what is happening, and slides an arm under her knees, sweeping her up so he's holding her as he did once before, what seems like a lifetime ago.
The last time she was curled in his arms this way was almost a year ago. She'd been in the castle all of a month, and had fallen from her ladder when pulling his curtains down.
That was the first day she'd shared his laughter. The first time she seemed to see him more as a somewhat strange companion, rather than an evil monster. And the first day he'd taken a long enough look at her to see beyond the scared girl trapped in a strange place, and seen some of her strength, her true value.
She stops laughing, and looks up into his face. They stare at each other for a long second, neither of them even breathing.
And in that moment, he's honestly afraid of her. If she were to sigh, call this a mistake, ask him to put her down and walk away, then he doesn't know how many pieces he'd be broken into.
But she doesn't. Of course she doesn't: because she's Belle and he's Rumpelstiltskin, and after all this time he knows her better than that.
So he walks them down the corridor to the cracked open door of her bedroom, and kicks it open with the side of his boot. The room is spotless, of course, the creamy sheets on the bed pristine and neatly arranged. He deposits her here, settling her gently into the mass of pillows around the headboard, and sits back.
He can't help but stare at her, admire her in the sunlight streaming in from the huge windows. She's smiling, waiting for him to make his next move, but he's content for now.
For this moment, and the next, and perhaps even the one after that, he's happy to simply watch her. He's truly content to just bask in her very presence, in the fact that he's here, with her, without any deals or coercion or bargaining.
"What?" she asks after a while, concerned by his silence.
"I…" the words die on his lips. She's looking up at him, eyes wide and trusting, looking at him like he isn't the evil creature who bartered for her like property and locked her in a dungeon. He marvels at how she can just accept his silent apology, his friendship, his affection, and even the strangeness of his appearance, without even a word. Her bravery astounds him, and he forces himself to follow her example. For once, Rumpelstiltskin refuses to be a coward. "I love you."
At that, she lets out a happy little noise and reaches up, pulling him down to her and kissing him with smiling lips, laughing for pure joy.
They spend what feels like hours like that, lying on her bed, kissing and laughing and discovering each other. He couldn't tell later at what point he started fiddling with the ties on the front of her dress, when she first began to pull his shirt open: it was all lost in the pure magic of the moment.
His conscious mind only wakes from its Belle-induced coma when it comes to his boots. She is definitely laughing at him as he casts a puzzled look at his shoes and begins trying to untie them without letting go of her, to no avail.
"I know that look." She notes, as his frown intensifies.
"The one you have right now, like you're one step behind everyone else and can't work out what's going on."
"Damn boots won't come off."
"It's the look you had all the time the first three months I was here." She laughs, staring absently at the ceiling "I think I fell in love with you because of that look."
"That's all very nice, love." He says, storing the information away for further use, "But I still can't get my boots off."
"Can't you magic them?" she asks, impatiently fiddling with a strand of hair. She appears completely comfortable with the fact that she's almost entirely naked, but for a very sheer shift. He refuses to admire the view, knowing that once he starts, he won't be able to stop, and these damn boots will never come off.
He fixes her with a look, "All magic comes at a price. I'm not willing to risk it."
"Then come here." She sighs and sits up, reaching over the side of the bed and hauling his feet up onto her lap.
He tries to cover his yelp of surprise, knowing that it's hardly the most masculine of sounds he's ever made. He knows he's failed when he sees her smirk.
She picks at the knots with her nails, and has them undone in seconds. She raises an eyebrow at him as she pulls the boots off his feet and tosses them to the floor.
"Yes, well," he grumbles, "I loosened them for you."
"Of course you did." She nods seriously, mocking him.
The look on his face causes her to dissolve into giggles, and he decides he's not going to stand for that. So he moves down, and faster than she can believe he has his hand up under her shift, pushing one finger against that spot he knows from memory will make her fall apart.
She stops laughing.
He smiles with satisfaction, and moves up so he's hovering over her. Her eyes flutter closed as he moves his hand just a little, not enough to give her anything close to what she's craving.
He leans his head down and teases at her lips, brushing and nibbling very lightly without ever actually kissing her.
She whimpers beneath him, and he can feel how wet she's getting, how ready she is for this.
Her face flushes, her eyes flicker open to look up at him, bright and glazed over with desire, and he can't hold on any longer. He moves himself down slightly, and positions himself at her centre, looking up into her eyes as he slides slowly inside.
She lets out a gasp of pain, and he frowns, alarmed. "Is this okay, love?"
"Yes, just… I didn't think it would hurt."
"It won't after a moment." He promises, holding still to allow her to get used to him. After a moment her eyes open again, and she breathes deeply, "Okay?"
"Yes," she breathes, smiling "I'm fine."
"Good." His smile could light up kingdoms as he moves out and thrusts back in again, causing another gasp that has nothing to do with pain. He encourages her to wrap her legs around his middle as he sets up a rhythm. His finger stays against her centre as he moves, rubbing at the swollen little nub, and he hopes that the pleasure it causes will remove any vestiges of pain.
He never wants to hurt her. In that second, he pledges every power he has to preventing anyone – even himself – from ever hurting her again.
She moans as he shifts slightly, hitting a deeper angle, and the sound sends him wild. His control starts to slip as her walls contract around him, squeezing him tight, and he can't help but increase his speed until he's pounding into her, causing her to wrap her arms around his shoulders and cling on limply.
She screams as she climaxes; she rides it out as he follows her over the edge, letting out a deep moan that he buries in the side of her neck.
Finally he collapses; he just enough strength left to push himself off her and lie next to her, curling her warm body so it moulds against his.
They slip into a deep sleep, and the sun is setting outside by the time he rouses.
It's a strange sight he's met with: Belle, naked but for that near-transparent shift, idly braiding strands of his hair.
"What're you doing?"
"I thought you'd look nice with braids."
"Oh." There's no logic there to be flawed, so he just settles down and lets her continue.
"You never answered my question." He says, after a minute of comfortable silence.
"If you were so sure that you loved me – and had no problems with any of this" he gestures to the lack of space between their bodies, lying together on the bed, "Why were you avoiding me for so long?"
"Oh, that." She looks a little ashamed, "I was researching."
That piques his curiosity, "Oh? And what were you researching, my love?"
"What?" it comes out sharper than he means it to, and doesn't fit the comfortable intimacy of the conversation.
"I was researching curses – I heard somewhere that all curses could be broken with True Love's kiss, but it didn't seem to work on you when… you know, I kissed you, so I did some research."
"Oh." He relaxes a little, glad she isn't planning on taking up witchcraft or fooling around with magic, but some tension remains, "And where did you hear that?"
"I got talking with someone on the road – she never told me her name. I mentioned… I said something about how I loved a man who wasn't a man, and she said the curse could be broken with True Love's Kiss."
"She?" he can't help it, the alarm and suspicion are too strong to hide, "Did she ride in a black carriage, and dress all in over-the-top black?"
"I-" she frowns, "Yes, actually, how did you know that?"
The pure puzzlement on her face does more to alleviate his fear than any denial ever could. She isn't a weapon of the Queen – of course she isn't – and her innocence is so clear he could weep.
"You're very lucky that the Queen is an idiot." He says, his smile so wide he's afraid he'll break in two.
"What?" she smiles too, unsure of the reason, "What Queen?"
"The one you met on the road, who decided to turn you into a curveball to throw at me."
"Don't be, you've done nothing." He laughs, "I'm not cursed, but she doesn't know that."
"But you were a man and now you're not. What is it if not a curse?"
"A sort of… inheritance, I suppose you'd say. The only way for me to become human again is for someone to kill me and take my place. Or for me to enter a world free from magic, I suppose, but that would be nearly impossible."
"Oh," she's smiling now, as widely as he, "Good."
"Good? I thought you wanted me to be human again, True Love's Kiss and all of that?"
"No." she shakes her head, "Never. I love you, Rumpelstiltskin, you're like no one else I've ever met." She laughs, "I was just afraid that there was someone else – someone you could love more than me who could break the curse."
"There is no one I could love more than you." He's never meant anything more sincerely in his whole life.