I adore this show. The version of Rumpelstiltskin in this production left me reeling, and by placing Belle into the plot, my past love for the classic tale was renewed in full.

This piece centers on a new-found volition of "Mr. Gold's," a hint of magic with the cherished chipped cup, as well as a connection I yearn to see in later episodes. This can take place several days/weeks after "Skin Deep." One-shot.

All rights go to their respective owners.

"Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear." Ambrose Rednoon

There was a fact that he held above all others, a notion emblazoned with the wisdom of a life forged by hardship: no one was born brave. Courage, much like walking, had to be learned, earned only after the fall and the knowledge of pain, as well as the desire of the prize behind the act. Not a being was born brave, no matter what poets and feeble-minded folk attempted to tell him. How could one learn lessons without a trial after all?

The instinct was always there, that fight-or-flight mechanism solely based on survival. Some chose the hard-beaten path, roaring into the melee with drawn weapons, prepared for irrefutable consequence. But there were those, those creatures like him, who were truly weak. When the defining moments came, a second that would determine his true character, he chose against it, running for his pitiful excuse of a life. He was not strong, his body brittle, his bones weak. His eyes were filled with an iron-laced light, yes, but everything from his neatly pressed shirts to the tip of his gilded walking cane screamed of his flaw. Through and through, he was a coward.

Thus far, he admitted bitterly, that trait had kept him alive. The layered part of his soul - if he still had one remained a constant mystery - spoke to him that if this was what it felt like to be alive, he wanted no part in it. Rumpelstiltskin, the creature of legend and lore, would never stoop so low as to commit self-slaughter. That was a new level of cowardice even he was unwilling to acknowledge, much less entertain on a night like this one.

A quick look outside the shop window revealed that it was indeed night. It also reminded him that he was still here, sitting in his shop, when he should have been home. There was no one else awake at this time, much less sitting in places of business contemplating things that were better off forgotten. Still, he couldn't bring himself to move from his chair.

The streets had settled, aside from a flash of color from a passing car every so often. The night was his, a pocket of peace so profound it was almost maddening. He should have been asleep, a chastising voice proclaimed, for mornings and the obligations they brought waited for no man, much less a myth.

The luxury of sleep was robbed from him on this night, if not for the past week. He supposed he should have been grateful that he had pillows and a comforter, which was a significant contrast from the unfamiliar furnishings of a secluded jail cell. He was out of jail, but not without an un-washable stain on his records courtesy of his arrest and the charges his actions had brought him. Miss Swan never did cease at letting others know she would stop at nothing to get others to pay for their mistakes. She owed him a favor, and normally the thought of her, the seemingly omnipotent and righteous Miss. Swan bestowing something to him would make him sneer in delight, for it would show that she was not as powerful as she believed she was. Reality checks, when they belonged to those who you despised, always came as a good source of amusement.

But now, in the velvet gloom of night, in an ensconcing darkness that settled over his thoughts like a thick veil, there was no delight; only his flaw.

Normally, such thoughts of self-pity would not haunt him in this manner. He would brush off the doubt, the gnawing fangs of self-derision and sleep a dreamless sleep. But on this night, when a most precious object and more importantly, the stinging and beloved memory attached to it kept him awake, he couldn't just ignore the assault it had on his body, specifically his mind.

The broken cup was all the company he needed right then, he attempted to tell himself beforehand. It was nothing but a cup, a place to hold tea, a fragile decoration of little use other than simplistic beauty. That notion was splintered into fragments the moment it went missing. How deeply he relied on one little object was never known until it was gone from his hands, from his immediate safekeeping. He took the presence of the china cup for granted and the loss of the object ignited a state of blind panic deep within him, a rage that would only be extinguished with the location of his property.

His property. That was an interesting choice of words, considering the memory attached to it.

In the faint lamp-glow, the colors of the cup were both distorted and gilded, the white of the finish, like sunlight on an un-tarnished snowdrift. The design was simple, a cerulean smudge of color, forming a branch, a few leaves and a bird taking flight. If one didn't count the chip in the side, the missing piece, it would have made a decent trinket with the tea-set.

But there was no set, for once upon a time, he destroyed it, keeping only this relic with a trail of thinly composed memories connected to it for company. The one behind the chip was beyond the notion of memory itself however. As if a different time would take away the months he spent with her.

Unbidden, the little remembrances returned, and he was far too unprepared for this mental onslaught to battle them.

"Not now." The words were spoken, barely above a whisper, as if his vocal cords were attempting to keep the words from taking form on his lips. Emotions like this, memories such as these had no intention on remaining locked within.

There she was, a being of warmth and laughter dancing before his eyes. She had smiled at him, a brilliant flash of pearl-white teeth against rose-red lips, a smile that would reduce the very framework of his harnessed power to rubble. She would gaze unflinchingly on his features, features that were more monstrous, more reptilian than anything that resembled a human countenance. Often times, back then of course, he wished to ask her why she looked at him so boldly. Was it because of her yearning to prove herself, that a "lady" could gaze on his hardened features and not faint? Or was it due to her inner-heroism, a valor that fashioned her every outline...her beautiful, radiant outline...

If he began that train of thought, there was no stopping where it would lead. By logic, by anyone's side glance or the briefest of observations, Belle was beautiful. Hers was not a superficial loveliness however. There was a wit, the fires of daring to act behind her crystal-blue eyes, purpose lifting her tapered fingers into action. Her intelligence was playful, bordering on mischievous at times, but it was the way she phrased her words, mere inquiries revealing eloquence. Not for the sake of showcasing what "proper grooming" gave her; it was just who she was.

Likewise, being a creature of power was who he was. Yes, he was cursed, brilliantly trapped by the intoxication of force. It was no burden, he had once believed, invincibility, the ability to give way to a respect borne of fear. How wrong he had been.

The admission, though it resonated in his thoughts alone was enough to coat his throat with the bitter gall of self-actualization, a sourness that made him want to retch. Power, that damned ideal, his son, his yearning...all for what?

'An empty heart.'

Emptiness. From oblivion, anything could be created. From straw, beautiful gilded strands of gold were formed, spun by his hand. It was his trademark, he who could make the ordinary a brilliant spectacle. But that beauty had a grisly price, and though he warned those who bargained with him of the cost, he always reveled in their fallout, the tears of dark realization and anger that coated their faces at the end. When they looked at him during the second encounter when he came seeking his end result, they thought him nothing but a monster, the "beast" of shadow and hell-fire. He knew this and basked in their terror, on the fading of the lights from foolishly optimistic eyes.

But in truth, he was the one who was losing. With each deal, with every wicked smile as he leered over those who he prevailed over, he lost his humanity even further. When something was truly lost, when one continued their forward momentum into a void that swallowed them, it became harder and harder to remember where they had come from, and even if they wished to return, the journey backwards was hardly pleasant.

He remembered so clearly that the years had passed, back then, in both solitude and a sort of ennui that came with his post. His son was gone, lost, but his throne still gleamed with the gold that he fashioned from a past deal that he had never once regretted. Besides, even if he did regret it, there was no returning to the state of a mere man, no matter what had been stripped of him. What did he have to return to? A decrepit home that was taxed and a state and country that had wished for his only son to be killed for the sake of lands he had no connection to? An empty path, strewn with foliage and trees that reminded him of the memorable night when he gave alms to a begging man? He didn't think so. Memories were poison, and company was troublesome.

And yet...he thirsted for new faces. He wished to see more than the usual prospects, young maidens who begged him for a change, for those who danced in and out of his life like flitting shadows with the candle-light on his estate. Those who made deals with him were always attached to him, yes, but he never fully got to see what the deals did to them first hand. If he witnessed that, his mind told him long ago, then maybe he wouldn't feel so empty. He needed to know that what he was doing was of significant consequence, and with that, he would remember who he was, and with luck, feel important once more.

It was an egotistical thought, but he followed through on it. A randomized king desperately needed help, and he would heed the call, if and only if his daughter in the gold gown - a fitting color, for that was his trademark after all - came with him forever. He spouted something about needing someone to help him clean his estate, for it was growing rather filthy and went on his merry way, gripping the arm of a maiden he owed nothing to.

The purpose behind the act was without challenge. All he wanted to do was witness that he was making someone suffer by forcing them to be in his presence, and he would know that what he was doing was paying off, by making the young, the capricious and those without staid character realize that nothing was without price. He had no idea why he had chosen Belle, but names and faces - no matter how beautiful - didn't really matter.

How wrong he had been once more. When she should have attempted escape, screaming from the estate like a wraith bent on fleeing from the hellish belly of the underworld, she stood her ground, her heels digging into the floor. When she should have flinched from his gaze, she looked directly at him into eyes that never missed a single gesture and smiled. She smiled and in an even more perplexing gesture, laughed at his sarcastic way with words.

What, or more importantly who, had he allowed into his life?

An enigma. Instead of rebelling against his orders, she did everything asked of her. It was obvious that her motives were forged out of the fear that if she didn't obey him, that his deal would be invalid and her friends and family destroyed, but there was something deeper than that. In the determinant of life, there were either petty reasons or profound ones; hers were the latter. There seemed to be more principle behind her actions than what she was letting on, her hidden volition coating her body with more than a simple yet elaborate dress she wore nearly every day. He couldn't quite understand why she even spoke more than two words to him, to someone who had imprisoned her and stripped her of youth, of her intense thirst for adventure.

So he asked her. He asked her why she had chosen this life, instead of one where she lived comfortably in a palace, with a handsome fiance, with everything she could ever desire at her beck and call. She answered him truthfully, that she wished to prove herself, be the example for other women in her country. It wasn't quite martyrdom, for she was still alive and well, but in some sense, she wished to be a saint. It was greedy...but that wasn't it either he realized. She earnestly wished to prove that women could be heroes, that she could put her well-being aside for the people she loved.

That interested him, and in a twist of fate, she wound up in his arms. The curtains fell open and with the blinding flash of sudden light, she was close to him, close enough for him to feel the hourglass shape of her body, for him to know that there were different colors in her eyes, and that no, the flowers in the room were not the sweet aroma that filled his sinuses every day: they were her. He released her almost immediately, noting the unexpected arrhythmia her nearness caused, the tingling of his hands and chest where he touched her. Either his body was rejecting her proximity so fiercely that he felt this way...or it was the makings of something he wanted no part in.

Although, based on this living enigma that smiled and laughed with him, should he have let her sit beside him as he spun, or allowed her to ask questions that would have revealed twisted truths? No, no he shouldn't have. But he was of weak mind, completely convinced that this embodiment of aspiring heroism meant him no harm. She sat beside him, smiled that enchanting smile, and for those moments by the window, she was the deal-weaver, the bewitchment over his life.

He saw this, knew what this was, and he wanted no part in it. There was no one who was capable of loving him, of accepting him in all of of his mottled ideals and his warped perspective on life. But there was no arguing that with the way she looked at him, a gaze filled with the tenderness of a woman who craved the intimacy of a lover, that she did not feel the same way. And with the more time he spent in her presence, he was crippled by her, broken piece by piece until he resembled a fragmented version of that chipped cup of her first night in his life. If he did not tread carefully, he would be nothing but putty in her hands, and she would hold power over him.

Meaning, he had to test her. He would release her, and if she returned, then he would allow for this feeling to take hold. Perhaps there was a way to taint her, to make her a sort of dark queen at his side...

The moment that thought was conceived, he nearly drove a knife into his skull, for there was no way that anything Belle would or ever could become would be tainted, or dark. No...if she would return, then he would allow himself to try a new facet of understanding the existence he had placed on himself. There was nothing wrong with a new mind-set, no matter the source of the beautiful inspiration.

He released her and knew that he would most likely never see her again. She danced out of his life, and he expected for her to never walk through his door, or gaze upon him so fondly ever again. And yet he remained by the window, wishing for a glimpse of a cloak, a flash of a small basket filled with straw that he would weave into gold.

In this instance, his wish was granted. She returned, face flushing from the chill and never had he entertained such brief elation. There was something brighter about the colors in the room, something better about the atmosphere, all because of her homecoming.

This shattered the moment her lips touched his. It was so startling, so unexpected that he couldn't push her away. At least, that's what he attempted to tell himself as she ever so sweetly kissed his mouth, her breath hot against his skin. The room spun, and he nearly allowed himself to kiss her back, to lose control and fall into the vertigo of something he hadn't felt past the time of forever.

Belle spoke about kisses, about something that changed her mind...and he felt his power falling away, his skin melting and transforming into the skin of a human man. Love, if that was what this terrible, wretched feeling was, altered states until the conduct was left beyond recognition. He loved power more than her, thirsted for more than her kisses and selfless acts. He was beyond the feelings that it could stir in him, for there was no room for hearts if one chose to be monsters, chose to be beasts.

He howled at her that no one could ever love him, and he saw her for what she was right then: a brilliant little trickster. If it was all an act, he would stand at ovation and applaud until roses rained from the heavens, for she made a stunning actress. Never would he have believed that the Queen would embed this little wicked lovely into his life, get him comfortable with the roots, and then wrench it from the ground up. He would have to be more careful, and this would come at a terrible lesson: trust no one, and let no one in.

To the dungeon she went, and glass was smashed, his anger without a filter aside from the satisfying smash of porcelain. Somehow, even as red lined his vision with the flames of a raging conflagration, the chipped cup, that little possessive memory lingered in his hands. He couldn't bring himself to destroy it, which just went to show how deep Belle's little spell was woven.

Eventually, he let her go. There was no sense in keeping around a little trickster and a spy of the Queen.

The dungeon doors opened by his hand, and he bore final witness to the little liar. She was sitting in such a way that revealed that she never expected to see the light of day again, and for that, his lips twitched into a wry smile. Belle had played pretend for so long that she didn't know how to shake the illusion's hold any longer.

She marched away from him, barely meeting his eyes. He suspected that this was a good thing, for he didn't want for any of her words to shatter his barely-there facade, for even though he knew that she was loathsome, a little adder, it pained him to know that he had been so deeply fooled.

And suddenly she was in his face, as fearless as day one. "You were freeing yourself. You could have had happiness if you just believed that someone could want you. But you couldn't take that chance." Even though he could have killed her, snapped her neck and left her corpse in the dungeons, she still spoke with him and dared to speak to him in such a tone. She claimed that his power didn't mean more to him than her, in a voice composed of self-righteous emphasis. It was as if, in that moment that was clearer than all others in his ocean of memories, she was casting a spell of her own.

"You've made your choice. You're going to regret it." The words were daggers to his skin, creating scars where the blades dug into his flesh. The words were needles sinking into his chest, hitting his heart with every breath, his blood filled fully with the syllables and letters she fashioned on an eloquent, courageous tongue.

He could deal with emptiness. What he couldn't deal with was having a little deceiver worm her way into his life, for she had no right. She was nobody, no matter how beautiful, and no matter how seemingly selfless her actions seemed in the moment. For that's all it was, all she was: a lie, construed with an enchanted thread of truth.

Time passed, and her curse was prevalent, though he fought it. He avoided all mirrors, not for the sake of caring what the Queen was up to, but to dodge his appearance. He already knew what he would see if he gazed upon the glass: sallow skin, hollow eyes, and above all, emptiness, the damned oblivion she spoke of that would become a life that should have been far more interesting than it had been. Her ghost haunted him in the glitter of the dust motes, roses blossomed and made him think of her lips, her mouth, and his little stool by his spinning-wheel was left with the imprint of her presence, the perfume of her existence.

He fought, only to lose the battle once more.

Regret. He knew that with the Queen's unwelcome visit she would see a creature that wasn't quite himself, and yet she came. The pleasantries were exchanged, and he fought the urge to spit at her feet, as well as sneer with barely contained arrogance that her little plan had failed.

She claimed that she had nothing to do with the tragedy, and despite his best efforts at repressing his dread, a cold vice clamped his stomach. His blood burned in his arms, his breath was frozen on his lips, and there was nothing but him and the Queen in the room, her black and imposing figure, and him with his heels ground into the earth to keep him from careening out of orbit. What did she mean by that exactly, by tragedy?

Still, he had to inquire and the truth was spoken with a twitch of cranberry lips.

The words resonated, the unmerciful truth making his hands shake and he wished to clench them to hide his reaction from a person who didn't even deserve his time. However, she told him the truth, a truth that would have been revealed sooner or later had she not come. It was made all the more powerful that she was there, watching his every move, and though even she didn't know it, the words killed him. That was the brutality of honesty however: it came without a knock, without any foresight and it left the receiver bereft of hope, the messenger cackling at his sorry state.

Belle was dead. There was no life left for her outside of these walls, for he had been the one to taint her. He had been wrong in every single facet of thought, for though he knew now that Belle could never be poisoned by her affiliation with him, the outside world didn't think so and deemed her guilty by association. Without her fiance to protect her - which was also his fault alone - Belle was left exposed to a most unkind life, a life in which her own father shunned her, believing her to be dirty and raving mad for spending her time with him, and perhaps even speaking highly of him if he allowed himself an instant of egotism. To that, inner-indignation raged, the flames of hell-fire tickling his ribs, for what father could emever/em do that to their daughter, turn their back on them when they gave up everything for their sake, something he hadn't the courage to do himself?

There was no excuse, for the blame was his. It was his fault. He uprooted her, not the Queen. In some ways, the Queen was part of this web, but he had been the one to conduct it from the beginning, he and his wicked ways. He was the one who had been lashed with his own lesson: the thought of no action, no wish, no yearning coming without a price. The price was death, and being forced to live with the regret of the knowledge that he could have been happy at that very moment, instead of fighting back the urge to destroy his estate with him in it.
The Queen swished away in a tumble of ornaments and black demure, leaving him to his thoughts. The cup was brought out from its place behind the repaired cupboard, and it held silent vigil in the front of the room. Only when it was settled on the polished table did he allow himself the satisfaction of weeping. The actions he caused, from gripping power to thinking himself above all came at the expense of this emptiness, this consuming hour that stole the light from the room, the notion of finding contentedness fleeing like Belle once had from his sight. The only difference, he thought with all the bitterness of a hardened life, was that it wouldn't return as she had.

She had done no wrong. She had dared to love him, boldly defying the orders that he had settled himself into. She could have freed him from his ideals, from the words and phrases, actions that so fashioned his life. The beauty had danced her way, in a golden dress, into his life, and him, being the grisly, selfish beast that he was had cast her away to the wolves. Only when he realized the hideousness of his actions, it was far too late. He had been unable to save her from her fate, from a fate bestowed by him alone. The beast destroyed the beauty.

And now, upon the witching hour of a twisted, present-day world in which any chance of having his memory washed from his sins was gone, he knew regret. Belle was, as he had once screamed at a pitiful excuse of a father and human being, gone forever. Her memory haunted him, and it had every right to. She was there, in the slants of sunlight at his door, glittering with the kaleidoscope colors of his windows. She was there, gripping the broken tea-cup, telling him with a barely hidden tremor in her voice that she had chipped the cup. And she was there, sitting beside him, asking him in earnest about his son, about a loss that made him want to destroy, gag, and fall to his knees from the memory of it all at once.

Recollection and memories wracked his body with waves of torment, the waters lapping at his skin like eager mouths, wishing for any fabricated happiness he had managed to locate over the years as nourishment for the ocean of Melancholia itself. He blinked, and realized that he had been staring at the same spot on the cherry-wood table for the past five minutes, gazing on a specific, significant tea-cup the Queen had taunted him with behind bars.

Five minutes could seem like an eternity when you were dwelling on the hell of the past.

She was gone. He had to move on, to accept that. There was no sense in contemplating the harm he had done to a young lady once upon a time. For, humans could just as easily destroy their lives without having beasts roam about their worlds to make it happen. But how could he move forward? How could he simply forget the one who had given him such a poignant, world-splintering memory? How could he forget her loveliness, her fearlessness, her valiance? It was impossible.

An idea came, and though he tried to tell himself that there was no way he had the strength for it, the notion germinated, spiraling through his cranium, the vines encircling his thoughts, working his mind into overdrive. He was inclined to agree and there was no resisting.

The thought was this: the very mantra that made up his existence was that there was a price to be paid for every wish, for every notion of impossibility that came his way that he was forced to grant. Even if he was the cruelest creature that had ever taken an exhalation of breath, even if he was the King of Beasts, there was no denying that he had to take his own rules into consideration. He owed this young lady more than he ever could have imagined, and there was no shirking the responsibility of the facts.

He had never been brave, and he had never fought for anything in his entire life. This, the thought of saving one young woman from whatever trouble unfairly given to her was enough to steal the breath from his lungs. Armor had never suited him, but there was no choice here, for he had made his choice in another life and regretted it more than he could place into the words of his thoughts.

He picked up the tea-cup once more, his hand shaking with the small effort. It was as if it weighed far more than it actually did, the burden of culpability making his hand and palm ache. Fingernails traced the edges of the cup, the finish that had faded a little with age, the chip more pronounced on the weathered material. The flaw in the cup was more cherished because she had made it, because she had dared to make an impression on him that would have gone unwritten if not for her. This detail, this little chip was precious to him. emShe/em was precious to him.

He wasn't sure if he should speak the words aloud, giving the idea form. If one did that, it made the promise that much more permanent, and once something was spoken, whether the words fell on deaf ears or not, it made it that much more significant. He didn't know if he had the courage to even open his mouth, much less proclaim to no one that he would go to any lengths if she was even alive and salvageable, to be this young lady's everything.

He owed her his life. It was only fair, and fairness and balance was everything he stood for.

If he could think the words, why couldn't he say them?

Taking a breath, he wet his lips, attempting to still his heart. "Belle. Belle, I owe you my life." He gripped the cup, feeling foolish for saying these words out loud, with no audience aside from his own body and mind that bore witness to the accented tone. However, he persisted against the notion of hope, against possibility itself. If he could admit this to himself, it was the first step toward valiance.

"I...I'm so sorry. Power means nothing to me. It doesn't." The thunder of truth echoed in his ears, making the silence that much more profound. He loved her. Only love made someone give up their post, their all-encompassing fortitude. " I'm a coward, a fool. If I can have the chance to prove to you just how sorry I am, you need to believe that I'd take it. If you're alive...if you're not gone, then let me save you. I will save you, offer you my life, beg on my knees..." He paused, knowing this sounded like the ramblings of a man sick with the fever of infatuation, a poet whose words were coming from the dregs of too much drink. However, the words had been held dormant for far too long, and he needed to speak.

"I'll save you, Belle. I'll save you. I'll search for you in this damned town. You were right. You were right when you said I would regret my choice. If there's even the slightest chance you'll forgive me, or accept my help, I'll take it." The tea-cup shook with his trembling hands, and his throat felt thick with the spoken words, words that would either damn him or be his redemption.

"I-I don't want to be a coward. If you'll take me...I'll be your knight, your savior, whatever it is that you need Belle. Just make yourself known to me. Show me where you are. Or, at the very least, Dearie..." his throat burned with the old term of endearment "...let me save you."

Irregardless if the Queen, if the Madame Mayor was listening to him at that very moment, the air seemed to sizzle with his spoken words, as if he was speaking from a Grimmoire instead of from the hollow places of his mind, the echoes of what little remained of his heart.

'Let her come,' he thought with feverish anticipation and even looked up to the door, just daring for fate to show him the Queen from memory 'I'll kill her.' Nothing happened.

At least, not at first. He didn't expect anything except for the sheriff to knock on his door and demand that he be hauled out in a straight-jacket, or for Hell to at last take him into an embrace of fire and granulated brimstone.

What he didn't expect was an answer. He blinked, and in the after-images of light, a veil appeared, revealing a sepia-toned version of this world, and a life in which he struck fear into the hearts of others, a world of the past stacked onto present day. There was his shop, the cluttered and yet tidy mess of priceless objects, but there was also an expansive dining room, opened windows that allowed sunlight into the room, his spinning wheel, and the ghost of his Dearie, of his Belle.

She was standing at his spinning wheel tracing the wood with one hand, the device spinning round and round, the white string that it was set with creating a substance finer than gold. From this angle however, it appeared that she was fashioning starlight. A smile turned her lips skyward, her eyes unfocused, and her free hand was behind her back, toying with her skirts.

Then she looked at him, and he knew that this was no afterthought of madness, no blessed delirium. This was exactly what he had wanted, the sign, the signal fire, the vision he yearned for with every fiber in him. His wish was granted, and the price was his responsibility for her. This was a chance that only came within the moments of passing blue moonlight, the comet's tail of solar-fire shimmering and fading out with each passing of the clock's hands.

He opened his mouth, but before he could even exclaim that she was here, that he was standing not ten feet away from her, she placed a finger to her lips, as if hushing him. He clamped his lips shut, watching her curiously in a frame of existence that was more transparent than reality. She tilted her head, the gesture causing the curls of her hair to bob gently. How he missed that small movement of russet coils.

Belle spun the wheel, the apparatus turning faster than it could have ever gone had he used it. The significance was almost lost on him, but then he understood what the purpose was of the revolving wheel, what it meant. That was their pendulum, the sand in the hourglass. Until the wheel stopped spinning, he realized, they would have the time to speak. Even in modes of existence that were not quite tangible, there were time limits.

Belle smiled at him, a smile that both obliterated his heart with the all-too-familiar expression and caused it to beat once more. He almost forgot the promise he made to her about silence, for the gesture was so lovely, he nearly groaned aloud. She made a motion with her hand that stated that he needed to turn around, the patented smile still on her lips. Turn around? Turn around and take his eyes away from her? He had focused on other happenings for far too long; he wasn't going to let that happen again.

He drank in her image, roving his eyes desperately over her near-phantasmal form, noting that she was precisely as he recalled her, loveliness emanating her form. The dress was the same, the pins holding her curls up and away from her face were just as he remembered, and her skin was still the pallor of crushed berries over cream. He yearned to touch her, even if it was just to hold her hand, or to grip her in an embrace crafted from brevity.

But that was not his mission.

Grudgingly, he turned fully around and was startled by a doppelganger. There, kneeling on the floor, was Belle, but in a way that he had never seen her before. She was clothed in a hospital gown, and with the way she was holding herself, her knees close to her chest, it was as if she was shielding herself from something, protecting her body. It was a grim contrast to the way she once looked in his dungeons, but this...this was far worse. She wasn't herself, as something was missing from her face, from her eyes. And then he understood what it was.

Her hair was matted in an unkempt knot on the left side of her head, and when she raised her face, blue-glass eyes reflected nothing. Nothing but sorrow, but the desperation that no one had seen her in so long, in such a long time that she couldn't even remember how to greet a visitor aside from weak eye-contact. This was a being that had been abandoned, that had been dealt only the pinnacle of spite, leaving the remnants of a woman, filled with fear, without bravery in his wake.

It was then he understood what he was seeing fully, for this was a place beyond matter and being, beyond the limits that would hinder those without his power. Though by all logic, this place shouldn't have existed, and if every other fairy-tale creature knew that their past memories could be so easily obtained, they all would remember their lost lives.

But now was hardly the time for doubting what he saw before him, no matter how transient the vision.

The being behind him was who Belle used to be, which was why she was precisely as he remembered her, for there was no change. The being in front of him was who she had become in present day, a reflection of herself that was as startling as it was tragic. Gone was the fire, the spark for life, for adventure and strength. What had happened to her? Did it have anything to do with her father once more? Or was it Madame Mayor's doing in some form or fashion?

The cause didn't matter, for she was alive, and she needed his help. He would have to be the strong one in this time, the hero, just for her. For, he had made a promise.

The Belle he was looking at gazed up at him, and gave him a smile that would have made the Queen herself uneasy, a smile that made him leap for her, not caring of the consequence, or the fact that even here, he had a weak leg.

The result was that the spell broke, leaving him with a paperweight under his ribs and his body half over the desk. If anyone happened by the area, he would have surely have induced the staring of strangers.

For the lack of a better term, he couldn't give a damn. He took several deep breaths, gripping the tea-cup that was still in his hands, the handle gripped with his trembling fingers. She was alive. Belle was alive. She was alive and needed his help, needed him to be brave, just for her.

Quickly, he righted himself, fixing his clothing all the while. Gilded walking stick in hand and tea-cup gripped preciously in his grasp, he turned off the light, closing the shop. Tomorrow he wouldn't be in, no matter the loss of business; sleeping, and any manner of dreams he would experience in what remained of the night were far more important, for there might be clues there.

He half limped, half trotted across streets, down empty roads until he reached his home, all the while checking every corner, every moonlit crevice for the image of a present-day Belle that he needed to save. It wouldn't be that easy he knew, for she wasn't behind a dumpster or nestled against a building; she was hidden from him, a secret garden amidst a world of thorns. He had no armor to protect himself with aside from his knowledge, no sword unless one counted the cane he had once used like a bludgeon; if it came to it, the villain that held her would be killed with it.

His home came into view, a rather impressive house that was now safe, his sense of security lying in the promise of one little tea-cup. The key entered the lock, his small entrance way knew his presence, and the gloom was no longer something that plagued him. Tonight, he would sleep and not be kept awake by guilt.

He had no memory of getting into sleep-clothes, no memory of going through the motions of getting into his bed, cold sheets greeting him like the hesitant smile of an estranged friend. What he did recall was the image, and his mission. He had to find records of any young woman in a hospital gown, an empty-eyed young woman with whom a hospital gown and ill-kept hair couldn't disguise the beauty of. He had the will, and the way was paved before him, fashioned with the golden threads of yore. For once in his miserable and selfish life, he had to fight for something more important than power.

Bravery wasn't something one was born with; it was something that grew, with the passage of time, sometimes without any other choice than to be valorous for the sake of another. He had a choice, and even if it went against everything he once stood for, he would make it count when it came to it.

He closed his eyes, and he felt his lips turning in a smile that was not only his own. It was Belle's, from wherever she was, smiling with him. She knew this to be truth, even if she didn't fully comprehend that he would come for her. He wasn't charming; he was beastly. But the beauty of a new volition could kill off all ugliness.

'I'm coming for you, Dearie.'

The End