The characters and situations in this story belong to Edward Kitsis, Adam Horowitz, ABC, and other entities, and I do not have permission to borrow them. No infringement is intended in any way, and this story is not for profit. Any errors are mine, all mine, no you can't have any.
Another tidying. Many, many thanks to Vespertinesoul, who swiftly and graciously beta'd this for me!
It was just another needle, when it came, and she expected nothing more than the usual sting and ache and suffocation in white silence.
She wasn't prepared for icy black.
Opening her eyes made her think it was the dreams again, because instead of grimy concrete she saw dark blue sewn with golden stars. It was a happy sight, and she stared at it bemusedly for a while, because while occasionally she dreamed of happiness, it was always a memory - never anything new.
This was new. It was all she could see, though part of her knew it was further away than her arm could reach; but it was enough. She watched it for a long time before sleep took her again.
It was still there when she woke, which was even more surprising. Nothing ever lasted but the cold and the concrete, and it took her a while to understand that she wasn't cold, either. And that never happened, even in the dreams.
She didn't move; most of the time her body felt too heavy to move anyway. She just lay still, enjoying the warmth and the happy stars above her. Occasionally a shadow seemed to flick past at the edges of her vision, but she carefully did not look; that way lay screaming. She would enjoy the stars as long as she could, and store them up for when they were gone.
The dreams still came, though slowly their intensity ebbed. Nightmares of needles and screams, of angry eyes and breaking glass, of war and loss. Sadder dreams of broken things she couldn't fix, words gone wrong, someone dying alone. Ordinary dreams of ordinary tasks, stew and bread and wine, dust and ironing. She chose them, even the nightmares, because they were more than cold and concrete, more than the complete absence of hope. It was easy to close her eyes and slip into them, and she wanted never to come out.
The stars were always there. The warmth was always there. The flickering shadows came and went, and gradually she began to hear a voice as well. At first it made her cringe, because voices out of nowhere were a sign of the hallucinations, and those were worse than the darkest nightmares. But it didn't scream or scold or babble, it talked to her softly and kindly, a stream of incomprehensible, soothing words. She found that listening to it relaxed her, even gave her something to hold on to. Sometimes it kept her from sleep and the dreams, and she didn't even resent it.
Once in a while there was another voice, flatter and cooler, but it wasn't addressing her so she paid it no mind. It was rare and brief when it came, and she much preferred the warm voice anyway.
If only it didn't sound so sad.
She didn't quite remember when the words began to make sense. Sometime after the patch of stars expanded, at least; there had been only a handful before, and then there were many, a sky held protectively over her. The sky had edges, though she couldn't see them, and the words had sense, though she couldn't quite string them together. She made out wake and sleep and the - that one came up rather a lot - and dearie and swallow and but.
It made her dream of birds, darting through a summer sky. She liked the new dream.
Feeling came and went. Sometimes she could feel the weight of blankets on her, the rush of air past her lips; sometimes there was wetness on her skin, the slickness of soap, the rough tongue of a washcloth. Sometimes warm fingers touched her face, gripped her ankle, shifted her to her side.
Sometimes they lingered at the corner of her mouth, or wrapped around her hand and just held on.
None of it hurt, so she didn't mind.
Taste arrived slowly, the saltiness of broth, the sweet density of gruel; but each was a sensation unto itself, separate from food as she remembered it. Water tasted strange and flat, harsh instead of earthy-sweet, but she drank obediently; she didn't remember thirsting, but it felt good on her tongue. Occasionally she caught a glimpse of a hand holding a glass or a spoon, but it never lingered.
Light came and went, she noticed after a while. Sometimes she could see the stars vividly, gleaming overhead; sometimes they were no more than glints in darkness. She remembered real stars from time to time, blazing on icy winter nights, but they were far away, like all the memories. Her sky was homier now.
The voice came and went, too, sometimes speaking, sometimes silent. Slowly the words began to link together into meaning; the first time she understood, the voice was telling her a story, about a cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill, and it made her happy even if the voice was sad.
She began to wonder about the voice and the hands. They belonged together, that was clear, and they were always gentle, but she couldn't bring them into a whole; they remained separate. She listened harder to the voice, trying to remember what it said; it rambled about weather and stories and people she didn't know, and coaxed her to eat, and promised her - over and over - that no harm would come to her, ever again.
Sometimes, when the light was dim and her eyes were closed, it dropped to a whisper and begged her to come back. She wanted to answer it, to point out that she wasn't away.
She wanted to comfort it, to ease that endless sorrow.
She wanted to tell it that her name wasn't dearie. But she couldn't remember what was.
The flat, cool voice returned, and this time she listened with interest. "Any change?" it said.
"No." That was the kind voice, harder than when it spoke to her. "Were you expecting one?"
"Aren't you?" The tone was dry. "Why else keep her here? I don't know why you don't at least get a nurse - "
"No." The word was sharp. "I don't want anyone else here."
A sigh. "You could take her someplace where they're set up to handle this kind of thing."
"Here in Storybrooke, Sheriff? What exactly do you have in mind? Back to the hospital?" The voice was angry now.
"You know what happens - "
"I could get you a Medevac helicopter, maybe." The cool voice was less so. "She can't possibly control the air too."
"And you can ride in it to make sure. Or better still, send Henry." Bitterness fueled the words. "Enough. Leave, Sheriff. We're done here."
The hardness of the sad voice should have frightened her, she thought vaguely, but it didn't. Maybe it was because it had promised her that she was safe.
Maybe she just trusted it.
It was one of the dark periods, when the voice only whispered, and her skin was awake. Fingers cupped her hand, a thumb stroked the palm, and the whisper pleaded for forgiveness for a crime she didn't remember. It distressed her to listen, because she could offer no pardon.
The fingers lifted her hand and pressed it against something warm and soft and the slightest bit rough, and when breath ghosted across her wrist she understood. The kiss was brief and glancing, and the sigh was almost a sob.
When she woke again, it was - daylight, she remembered that now. The stars shone above her as always, but her consciousness rippled out like a wave on a lake, out and out, and at last she had a real body again, and knew she was in a room, on a bed, warm with blankets and a soft gown. It was a canopied bed, wide and velvet-trimmed; the room was well-appointed, with heavy wood furniture and tall windows.
It felt strange to be back in herself, strange but good. She stretched tentatively; her muscles ached and it was an effort to move at all, but she could.
I have no idea where I am.
It was a struggle to push herself up against the pillows, but she managed. How did I get here? The last thing I remember -
The last thing she remembered clearly was cold concrete. Everything else was hazy and disconnected. But when she looked down at her arms, the ever-present bruises were gone.
So either I've been here long enough to heal...or they were right, and I really am crazy.
Before she could pursue the thought, the door across the room swung open and a slight figure shouldered in, one hand holding a cane and the other a pitcher. "Good afternoon, dearie. It's a lovely - "
It was the voice, the sad voice, trying to be cheerful but with the sorrow beneath, and her heart caught, because, because...
He froze, eyes fixed on her and widening, the door almost hitting him as it swung shut. She knew him - almost - familiar and strange at once, and so very dear if she could just remember why -
She smiled tentatively at him, and tried to speak, but her voice hadn't woken, it seemed; her hello was silent.
The pitcher dropped, splashing water unheeded across the carpet. He limped forward so quickly that she was afraid he would fall, then halted halfway to the bed, staring at her like she was hope and condemnation combined. It frustrated her; why should he be so far away?
"You're awake," he said softly. "Dearest heavens, you're awake."
She cleared her throat, coughed, swallowed. "Wh-where am I?" Who am I?
…Who are you?
He took one step closer. "Safe. You're safe here, I promise." His eyes were burning, hollow and hungry, relief and fear combined, and she didn't like it; why should he be afraid?
She held out a hand, despite the struggle it took to move it. "Come here?"
He took another step, then veered off to sit in the heavy carved chair set next to her bed. The cane was set aside; his hands folded carefully together, but she could see them shaking. "How are you feeling, dearie?" he asked quietly.
She frowned at him. "That's - " She swallowed again. " - that's not my name."
One corner of his mouth twitched up. "It's just an endearment. Miss French."
She blinked. "That's not my name either."
"Oh, but it is." He leaned forward a little. "You don't remember?"
She lifted her heavy hand to her head. "I…I remember you. Except you're different, somehow."
He gave a little bow, seated, hands spreading. "I assure you, I'm just the same as I always was."
But it wasn't true, because with the graceful movement came memory, and she saw him in her mind's eye, dark and glittering, presenting her with a gift and mocking himself in the giving.
Dangerous, but not to her.
With a violent effort, she dragged the blanket off her legs and swung them to the floor. The sudden movement made her head spin, and he sprang up, lurching across the little space to seize her shoulders and hold her steady. "What are you doing, dearie?" he scolded, sounding more panicked than angry. "You've been - sick, you need to rest."
She reached up, wrapping her fingers around those thin strong wrists, and tugged. Slowly he sat next to her on the mattress, hands slipping down and away until she laced her fingers with his. His eyes were wide, and she could see the pulse racing in his throat, feel his rapid breath.
"I know you," she said softly. "And you know me." She leaned closer. "Tell me my name."
"I did," he began, but she glared at him.
"My real name. Tell me."
She saw the fear in his eyes, the hesitation, and at the bottom a terrible hope; and then he closed them. It was scarcely more than a whisper. "Belle."
And she knew.
She drew her hands from his, and the lines of his face stood out harshly, though he did no more than pull his hands into his lap. "Now tell me mine," he said, voice flat.
She understood. To say his name, his true name, was to curse him all over again, to affirm that he really was the monster in the mirror.
But any curse can be broken.
Smiling, because she couldn't help it, Belle reached up and cupped his face in her palms, watching as his eyes snapped open. That dear face, those hurting eyes, different and yet just the same; had he learned courage yet?
She kissed him as she had before, offering her heart and the absolution he craved, trusting that this time he could accept them. There was no sharp tingle of magic dissolving, but she felt something change all the same; his lips moved gently against hers, and suddenly she tasted salt amidst the sweetness.
Belle pulled back just enough to meet his eyes. "Rumpelstiltskin," she said, and moved one hand enough to smooth his hair back. "My love."
He reached out with shaking hands, touched her shoulders, her neck, her face. The fear was gone, replaced by an expression she'd never seen him wear before: awed joy.
Then he pulled her close, arms so strong around her, rough cheek against hers, familiar spicy scent filling her nose. Belle hugged him as hard as her feeble muscles allowed, closing her eyes in bliss.
There was much to learn, she was sure; his changed appearance, his strange clothing, her own captivity all bespoke a story she didn't know, and one that was likely to be dark. But at the moment the only important thing was the man in her arms.
A man. Not a monster.
His grip loosened, and a finger stroked her cheek until her eyes opened. He was smiling, wry and tender and still joyful. "Kiss me again?"
"It's working," she whispered, and did, feeling his smile widen against her mouth. He was slow and savoring this time, offering her back what she had given him - a heart. And she accepted it in turn.
It was, after all, what she'd wanted.
Later, when exhaustion overtook her still-weak body, he soothed her to rest with the warmth of his own, and promises that he would be there when she woke. "Tell me about this world," she said into the darkness, resting her cheek on his chest.
"You wanted to travel," he murmured, lips brushing the crown of her head. "Well, there's much to see. But you'll need all your bravery, my sweet, there are still curses to break and evil to fight."
"Good," she said, drifting on quiet joy. "We can face anything together."
He chuckled, the bitterness finally gone. "Indeed we can."
Belle smiled, and let sleep take her.