A/N: *meekly waves* Hi to all my old readers and the many new ones! I know it's been, like - holy crap! How is that possible?! - two years since I updated this story, but I want you guys to know: I have no intention of ever abandoning it completely. I still think about it often, I still work on it now and then, and I honestly have changed, several times, which direction I'm going to go with it. But mostly, real life has just been distracting me from getting it done. And hey, we all know that the worst part about real life is that it gets in the way of fanfiction - am I right? ;)

Enough said! I'm back, baby! But I won't write any more and keep you from this update. :) No beta this time, so mistakes are mine. I hope you like it! Enjoy!

Chapter 8:

Belle felt as though something had changed between her and Rumpelstiltskin, though she couldn't seem to pinpoint what. It was though there was a lightness to the air and a weight lifted, as if a stormy sky had cleared, and the sun was aching to shine through the heavy clouds once more. The palace she'd known since childhood as the "Dark Castle" no longer seemed so dark. Even Rumpelstiltskin seemed to walk with a lighter step when she'd pass by him.

There were other changes that were more curious, like the morning she found that his spinning wheel had returned to the dining hall. It hadn't been there when she'd served him his breakfast and made small talk about his plans for the day, but when she returned with his stack of clean clothing to leave on the table for him, it was back in its place by the southeast window. Belle was still staring at it when Rumpelstiltskin came into the room and sidled up next to her. "Something wrong, dear?"

"I was just noticing that your wheel..."

"Well, yes," he drawled, lightly stepping a few feet away, his hands clasped behind his back. "It was becoming much too crowded upstairs," he explained, his nose wrinkled as if its former location had been an inconvenience, when just a few weeks prior, it had been an escape.

Somehow she knew that his excuse was a flimsy one, and it was just enough to make her smile. Changing the subject, she pat the articles of clothing. "Clean clothes for you."

He walked over toward the cabinet and opened the doors, reaching for a book, casually tossing over his shoulder, "Would you mind very much putting them away for me? I just don't have the time these days."

"But," Belle complained, "that would require venturing into the West Wing."

"Yes," he drew out for a long moment. Then he pivoted on his heel to face her. "You are no longer restricted from that area of the Dark Castle. Feel free to explore, and clean it to your heart's content."

She smiled at his teasing, both of them knowing how much she enjoyed cleaning. "Perhaps another day," she told him. "Today I'd planned to go to town."


"Yes. Could you perhaps prepare a coachman for me again?"

"Of course," he said lightly, closing his eyes and snapping his fingers. "Done."

Belle giggled. "If only I could do that, I wouldn't have to bother you for such a simple task."

"I could make up a potion that would work to do the same thing..." he offered with a wave of his hands.

She saw the seriousness in his expression. "Oh," she said with a bit of shock. She didn't know that was possible. But, "...No, thank you," she decided, shaking her head, loving the fact that he was finally trusting her enough not to think she would take the opportunity to run away. But she just wasn't willing to abuse that unexpected faith. "It's unnecessary, I suppose, since I don't use the carriage very often and will, even less so, as spring approaches." She held up his clothes. "I'll just go put these away and then leave for town before it gets too late in the day. If the last few days are any indication, it's sure to storm this afternoon."

Rumpelstiltskin bowed his head in agreement. "I'll likely be gone when you return."

Belle spun back to look at him, something gripping her heart that she could only describe as impending loneliness. "Another trip?" He nodded in reply, and she accepted the reality of it. "Will you be away long?"

"No," he answered. "I should return before midnight."

"Oh," Belle smiled, relieved. "It's nothing dangerous, I hope."

"A simple transaction. A certain fairy godmother has something I need."

She didn't want to ask for further details, afraid she might be repulsed by his answers. Despite how much he'd changed since she'd come to work as his servant, he was still a trickster that made deals for the most valuable things – even he'd admitted to that much. Nodding, Belle smiled her parting and went on her way.

Midnight came and went, but Belle could not sleep. Though she had no idea how he traveled or to where in the castle he'd return, she somehow knew he hadn't arrived back home as promised. The air in the house felt different when he was there; when he was absent, it was as if the castle felt it and mourned. It, in turn, gave her a sense of hopelessness and despair she couldn't explain. She'd felt it before when he'd been away, but now it seemed stronger, more intense, as if even the walls were closing in on her. She needed him home.

Pacing and waiting and hoping everything had gone well with his transaction, Belle sighed and propped up on her windowseat, leaning her forehead against the cool pane. She didn't even try gazing out into the dark night, knowing she wouldn't see him even if it were possible. He could be anywhere, in any land on earth, even hurt somewhere, though, with his power, that seemed the least likely. The queen appeared to be the only one that he truly battled; she'd heard stories since she was a child about the Dark One's power and the deals he made for firstborn sons and maidens, though she hadn't seen evidence of other girls ever having been in his castle. Many stories had been circulated over the decades about the mighty Rumpelstiltskin and his treachery, and now, having lived and worked and even fallen in love with him, she was sure that the majority of them were probably myths. He seemed to be evil only because that's what was expected of him. Regina, on the other hand...

Belle sighed again, closing her eyes when an image of Regina with her hand around Rumpelstiltskin's neck popped into her mind. If anyone could best him, Belle was sure it would be her. If only she could be assured that he hadn't encountered the evil queen tonight... "Oh, Rumpelstiltskin," she mumbled, worry gripping her heart. She muttered his name again, and it reminded her of his instructions for summoning him, should she ever need him. She thought to try by whispering his name a third time, sure that it wouldn't work unless she voiced it aloud, when suddenly, the air in the room seemed thicker. Stunned by the difference in the atmosphere, Belle sat up and turned to find that the man she loved was standing at the foot of her bed. With a gasp, she hurried across the floor to throw her arms around his neck. "I thought you might be hurt," she explained over his shoulder.

His hands splayed across her back, Rumpelstiltskin smiled as he held her. "No, love. Just late. Before I could take what I needed, I had to make a girl's dreams come true, and she didn't make it home until after midnight."

She pulled away and held his face, searching his eyes, finding truth there. "Oh, but I hope I didn't bring you home too soon."

"I was already on my way," he said happily. "Did you miss me?"

She nodded once. "I think everything in the Dark Castle missed you. This place nearly weeps when you're gone."

"Ah," he looked around the room. "Yes, my magic travels with me and wanes here with my absence." He lifted a hand and held her cheek. "You are tired, my dear. You should rest."

"I'll rest better now that you're here."

As they stepped apart, he didn't try to take advantage of her open statement. He simply revealed, "After one more task, I'll have no reason to leave again for a long time."

"Good," Belle smiled her reply before leaning in to hug him again. She held his face in her hand while her gaze met his. "And yes, I did miss you very much." She then closed the distance between them and kissed his cheek, her lips lingering long on his cool skin.

He hugged her and kissed her cheek as well before pulling back and taking her hand. "Come. It's time to sleep."

Walking her over to the unmade side of the bed, he lifted the covers and gestured for her to get in. Belle did as instructed and lay still as he tucked the blankets around her. "Thank you," she smiled up at him. Goodnight."

He bowed his head. "Goodnight, my...Belle."

With his little stumble on her mind, wondering what he almost called her, she was already drifting off to sleep before he closed the door between them.

The wand in hand, it didn't take much for Rumpelstiltskin to use just a drop of the love potion in her father Henry's drink as he drowned his sorrows in a local pub, and cast a spell over him as the thing Regina loved most and would have to sacrifice in order to initiate the curse. Now Rumpelstiltskin was secured a way back to their world when the time came that he wanted to use it. He needed only James and Snow's firstborn child to break the curse, and that could be done anytime, with just the right influence on the child.

That task taken care of, he knew the next step was to protect the bottle of true love and hide it in a secret place. And he found the perfect person for such a task, as the queen was still tormenting James and trying to keep him from Snow; Rumpelstiltskin knew the man could use a little help, and in exchange... He popped into the Infinite Forest where Regina had trapped James to keep him away from finding his Snow, who had been poisoned by an apple and was in so deep a sleep that the dwarves thought she was dead. Rumpelstiltskin tried to bargain with him to help him find her so that he might wake her with True Love's Kiss, but James had had enough, pointlessly fighting with him first. Once James realized Rumpelstiltskin could not be beat, he listened what he had to say and reluctantly did his bidding, hiding the potion of True Love in the one place it would not be found or destroyed by the curse: within Maleficent, who had taken on the form of a dragon; likely the only thing that wouldn't change, come that fateful day.

Rumpelstiltskin was actually fatigued when he arrived home, but the thought of seeing his Belle kept his spirits up. Knowing how much she enjoyed fresh flowers, he'd come prepared with a bouquet of wildflowers he'd taken from an obliging field and headed to the library where he knew she'd be. He was smiling as he entered and caught her sitting in a window seat with a book splayed in her lap, unread, as she gazed outside. She turned at the sound of the door, smiling over at him. "You're back."

He nodded, pulling the flowers from behind him, saying, "And not empty-handed."

Her smile widening, she slid her book to the seat beside her and approached him to accept the flowers. "They're beautiful," she crooned as she held the bunch to her nose to smell them. "Thank you. More proof that spring is in the air." She walked back toward the window to point out, "I was just noticing that the snow is all melted on the hill. It's so beautiful today. It makes me long to be out in the fresh air, walking or riding..."

"You're welcome to ride one of the horses, if you'd like. We have saddles, even a ladies' side-saddle," he said lightly, as if she should have known that, of course, his stables would be fully stocked with every supply possibly needed.

Belle impulsively kissed his cheek. "Oh, may I?"

"Of course," he replied, ignoring the heat he felt rising up his neck. "Shall I provide a servant to saddle the horse?"

"No," she grinned. "I can manage." She started for the door. "I'll be back in time to serve your dinner." And she hurried from the room, again tossing her thanks over her shoulder.

In the dining hall, as dusk set in, he could do nothing but pace. Belle had not returned, and though he'd pretended not to notice at first, sitting at his wheel – all the while checking the view from his windows for a certain rider and mount – he'd eventually abandoned his spinning with the inner excuse to stretch his legs.

He circled past the windows, again and again, concern etching his face with every glance that resulted in seeing no movement outside. His cloak was draped over the chair by the table, and every time he caught a glimpse of it, he wondered if and when he'd need it to find her. He tried to convince himself that he was merely worried she'd run away for good this time; he knew her old family home was to the south and west, in the direction she'd traveled, though many hours away. He'd have no trouble tracking her down, of course, wondering if a punishment would be expected or necessary, and how harshly she should be chastened, though he found that difficult to ponder, given their newly shared love and quiet understanding. All the while, he was trying not to consider the possibility that she was hurt somewhere, and behaving as though he wasn't as worried as he really was.

At long last, the need to know her whereabouts became too much. He was more powerful than this; he shouldn't have to waste his time worrying about runaways that were supposed to be fulfilling a contract. It was those thoughts he forcefully kept in mind – though his heart was gripped with fear that she was lost, alone, hurting, or in need of rescue – as he pulled off the cover from his magic mirror.

He was quick to make his demand of the mirror to reveal Belle, but he couldn't see her in the picture that formed. What was shown was the middle of the forest, so it was dark, with a fresh snow softly falling. In the warmth of his coal-and-wood-driven fire in the dining hall and his concern for Belle's absence, he hadn't noticed the temperature had dropped and clouds had formed in the sky. The river was beyond a long field to the south, and the only patch of woods in the direction she mentioned venturing toward was in the west, so he imagined that was where she'd traveled. In the glass, he could made out thick patches of snow in spots, but no Belle amongst the dark trees and snow-blanketed bushes. Then he saw the closest mound of snow move.

He snatched up his cloak and threw it around his shoulders just as he vanished from the room and appeared in the woods a few feet from Belle. She was unconscious and covered in a layer of snow; he was thankful she had at least been warmly dressed, with long sleeves and her cloak fastened around her neck. Her hood was over her head, but upon inspection, he found that she had a bump just above her temple.

Gathering her up in his arms, he hurried in transporting them back to the Dark Castle. The horse she'd ridden was long gone; though he knew, through the power of his magic, it would be home again in its stall by nightfall.

Belle didn't awaken as he set her in her bed, only moaning in pain as he settled her on top of the covers. He tended to her the best he could; even given his immense power, there were some things that just had to heal on their own. He could take care of the cosmetic aspects of wounds and injuries, restoring them back to the picture of perfect health, and he did that with Belle, healing the bump with a swipe of his hand; just the way he had healed her cheek that day of the queen's visit when his abusive slap had left her with a bruise. She didn't remember that touch, as she'd been under his spell at the time, but he did. Every second of holding her sweet face was burned into his memory, just as he was sure this instance would be as well.

He was still by her side when she awoke an hour later, blinking her eyes open, her face scrunching – against the pain or the brightness of the candlelight, he wasn't sure.

"Where am I?" she groggily asked first.

"In your room," he replied quietly, moving closer with a second blanket. "I believe you were thrown from the horse."

She tried to sit up, but he held her back by the shoulder, sitting beside her hip on the edge of the bed. "There, now; you mustn't try to move, just yet. You need to rest." He opened up the blanket and draped it over her.

The softness of his voice was surprising, but she still did as she was told and again relaxed against the pillows. But a glance at the windows and the darkness beyond them worried her; she must've been asleep for a long time, which could only mean that she hadn't followed his wishes to keep herself out of harm. "Am I hurt? What are you going to do to me?"

He peered at her curiously. "I am tending to your wounds. Just a bump on the head and a few scrapes, but I've already taken care of those. I was most concerned that you were too cold." He lifted the blankets over her and tugged out the warming pan from under her skirt-covered knees to check its temperature.

"What time is it?"

"It's late," he replied simply, his attention on rewarming the pan with his magic.

"Oh..." she mumbled, concerned. "Your supper-" she tried unsuccessfully to sit up, when he nudged her back again.

"Don't worry your pretty little head about that, love. I'll make do. In fact, it'll be I serving your meal this evening."

He waved at the side table and a bowl of soup appeared, but she groaned, holding her face as she rested again. "Don't bother; I don't think I could eat. My head is throbbing."

"I'm sorry about that," he said as he bypassed the soup-bowl to tend to her headache instead. "I had to wait for you to wake and tell me where it hurts before administering medicines."

She opened one eye slightly to look at him. "This isn't something you can fix with your power?"

"No, love, it isn't. Why do you think I chastened you to be careful in the library that day?"

Belle fought a smile, closing her eyes again. "I thought you were just being overprotective."

He chuckled lightly. "I suppose I was a bit, trying to keep you from finding yourself in this kind of predicament."

"Do you have medicine for the pain in my head?"

"I do," he sang in that silly voice she remembered well from early in their acquaintance, and he opened his hand to reveal a little bottle. The magic was lost on Belle, though, as she still had her eyes closed, but he let it go to continue to nurse her pain. "You'll have to sit up for me."

He didn't wait for her to respond, sitting beside her to lift her with one arm around her shoulders, positioning his bent leg behind her and propping her against his chest. Belle moaned for being moved, but he'd expected as much and opened the bottle, peering around her to lift it to her lips. "Here. Drink this."

She did as she was told, and her eyes shot open when the strong and bitter taste of the greenish-black liquid made her grimace. But it was temporary, as she was more distracted by the way the room seemed to spin. "Oh, I...feel faint," she said with her hand again to her forehead.

"Just...close your eyes and let it pass," he comforted, making the vial disappear before slipping his arm around her waist as he held her close. "It's from hitting your head when you fell."

"You mean, when I slipped," she commented after a moment.

"What do you mean, you 'slipped?'"

Her words were slow and slurred. "I just mean that today was the first time in all my years of riding that I simply slipped off the saddle. I'm embarrassed to admit it."

He practically snickered at her. "There's something to be said about riding with one leg on each side like a man, I suppose," he teased. "Though, perhaps you were out of practice on the side-saddle. You should ride more often."

Noticing then that his arm was around her and his head was pressed up against hers from behind, she could feel his love. Resting her arm over his on her waist, she caressed his hand all the way down to the fingers, letting her fingertips fall between the valleys of his knuckles. "Maybe you should join me in case my clumsiness again gets the best of me," she whispered almost breathlessly as she tilted her head towards him, blinking against the dizziness to try to focus on his face.

"It wouldn't be the first time I'd have to catch you if you were to fall," he spoke just as softly, their faces so, so close.

Belle's heart was starting to pound, and she couldn't seem to move, afraid it would break the spell and end the moment.

But Rumpelstiltskin must have felt the inappropriateness of their positioning, sitting with her in her bed, desiring so to kiss her, because he lightly sighed and quietly said, "I should go and allow you to rest."

She turned her head back to face front and clutched his arm on her stomach. "Oh, no, please don't. Please, stay...just as you are now."

He fought with himself for a moment, knowing he shouldn't, for every second with her in his arms was weakening his resolve to continue on the course he'd begun. He couldn't lose focus of his own endgame or he'd lose her in the process, and yet...he couldn't deny her a few more moments with him either. He wasn't even sure if he could pull himself away if he'd tried. "As you wish," he conceded. "But only until you fall asleep."

She was already well on her way there, he knew, when she mumbled in a slur, "I know you'll catch me."

He hugged her tighter, his cheek pressed up against her hair, and suddenly, the future, when he would no longer have her with him, seemed too near. He thought ahead to when he'd give Regina his approval to initiate the Dark Curse and how it would work. It would start from the fire in which she'd burn the heart of the one she loved most and would spiral outward from there until all of the lands were engulfed. He wasn't sure of the details, having never created such a thing before, but he imagined the damage would be immense, if anyone from their world would be able to watch it happen and come through to the other side unscathed, and had the good fortune – as only Regina would until the savior would reappear – to hold the event in their memory.

And then... He sighed, closing his eyes as he thought of all of the aspects of the Dark Curse, feeling the weight of Belle's head against his cheek, knowing she was asleep. "I'm going to lose you," he found himself whispering, though it was completely unplanned. But, empowered by speaking the truth, with her completely unaware, he went on. "But not forever," he vowed, trying to think positively. "And with the time stopped, it won't even seem like the years it will take."

Twenty-eight years, he recalled painfully, thinking of the spell he had to use to transform the bottled love into the cure; the only one from the same dark magic the curse had come from that was strong enough to work and bring it to an end. James and Snow's child would be the key. He knew the Blue Fairy would use the last enchanted tree to let Snow and James escape to the next world with their child, and after twenty-eight years of amnesia for everyone in their world, that baby would break the curse by somehow proving her love. Then they would all return home, and he and Belle would be free. The only upside was that he would regain his memories before everyone else, the moment he heard James and Snow's child speak her own name.

Now, he just needed to know what her name was going to be.

A/N: Reviews are love!