Title: Deal-Maker and Truth-Speaker

Rating: T

Word count: ~11,280

Characters/Pairings: Rumplestiltskin, Belle, brief appearances from the Queen, Snow White, Prince James, and Emma Swan.

Disclaimer: Nothing you recognise belongs to me, including characters and borrowed storylines.

Notes: First Once Upon A Time fic. New fandom love!

Summary: True love's kiss cannot break every curse.

"Why did you come back?" he asks her, leaning close – so close she can feel his breath on her face. Curious, confused. So confused, she thinks, because she's right. Since his son, he has loved nobody and nobody has loved him.

Her first answer dies on her lips; her first response is squashed. She cannot trick the trickster, has no wish to try. If she kisses him now, as she wants to, without telling him what she has been told…to trick him like that would be to lose him, she thinks. He deserves honesty from her, even if he never gives it in return.

"I met a woman on the road," she says, and he pulls back a little, his curiosity growing. "She was…I didn't like her, really. She was…" Belle tries to find the right words to describe that dark woman, who wore power like a cloak. So unlike Rumplestiltskin, who is immensely powerful but doesn't always show it.

"What did she look like?" Rumplestiltskin asks her, an unpleasant note in his voice, and she shivers despite herself.

"Tall," she says. "Dark hair…she was…she said she would walk with me, and I couldn't stop her." Rumplestiltskin's anger is growing, but Belle hurries to speak, tries to explain. "She said…a lot of things, but she talked about curses and – and that true love's kiss could break any curse."

That stops his anger, at least for now. He tilts his head, frowns at her. "True love's kiss?" he repeats. "What a quaint notion. Well, many curses, I suppose, but not all, by any means." He bares teeth for a moment, shakes his head. "That woman," he says clearly, "is the Queen. She means me harm, dearie." Then he rises, the anger returning, and Belle scrambles to her feet, steps back from him. "Is that why you came back?" he demands. "To break my curse? She sent you back here to destroy me!"

"No!" Belle cries, but he isn't listening.

"Damn that woman!" he rages, and he takes a cup from the tray on the table, hurls it against the wall. It smashes into a hundred pieces and Belle flinches before she finds her courage and steps towards him. Grasps his sleeve and refuses to back down when he glowers at her.

"I came back because I – I – I knew you wouldn't expect me to," she says. "Not to trick you, or destroy you. I didn't even know if – if you –"

He is still suddenly, calm. So changeable, so utterly unpredictable. One moment he is raging, and the next he is looking at her in that way he does sometimes, as if he doesn't understand her.

"You came back," he murmurs. "Not…not because of her?" Belle shakes her head, mute, and Rumplestiltskin lifts his hand, traces a line down her cheek. She closes her eyes for a moment, feels his finger on her lips.

"Would it work?" she murmurs, and his finger moves with her lip. He doesn't pull away, keeps that small point of contact between them. His finger at her mouth, her hand on his arm. "If I kissed you, would it…"

"No," he says after a long moment, and she opens her eyes, tries not to hide her disappointment. "No, dearie," he says softly. "Not this curse." There's something there, in his words, but it takes a moment for her to realise what it is. The curse can't be broken with true love's kiss – but he does not deny that he loves her.

It feels like her heart is expanding, as if she can't breathe. And he is waiting for her now, waiting to see what she will do. She releases her grasp on his arm, lets her hand drop to her side, but he keeps his finger at her lips, almost as if cautioning her to silence.

"You're not a man," she whispers. "Can you love as a man loves?" He says nothing at first, but something flashes in his eyes, something dangerous. Belle swallows, waits. This is uncharted territory, perhaps for them both.

"No," he says at last. "Not as a man."

"If I asked you to kiss me, would you?" she asks, and Rumplestiltskin smiles his strange, crooked smile, at last pulls his hand away.

"That sounds like a deal, dearie," he says. "Be careful." But she shakes her head, frowns at the idea. This isn't a deal; this is something else. She doesn't like him reducing it to such crudeness. "No?" he says. "But what do I get for it, hm?"

"Don't you want to kiss me?" she asks, and is gratified to see him flinch, just a little. Yes, he wants to kiss her. But he doesn't – perhaps he won't let himself. Perhaps he cannot accept happiness, cannot understand that she wants him to kiss her, that she loves him.

Then again, she hasn't said the words yet. Magic words, she thinks, in many ways. Three small words.

Belle tries to be brave, but the words die in her mouth as Rumplestiltskin watches her. She can't say it, not without some indication that he feels the same way.

But he wants to kiss her. That must be enough, that is a start. She puts her hands on his shoulders, lifts her face to his. Presses her lips to his mouth and kisses him, and after a moment she feels gentle pressure as he responds. Slow, hesitant, as if he is trying to remember what this is.

It doesn't break his curse, of course, and for a moment she wonders if it's because that wasn't true love's kiss.

Then Rumplestiltskin's arms come around her waist and he pulls her close to him, kisses her again. Sharp teeth and warm tongue and Belle thinks that this is what happiness tastes like.

Things change after that. Belle still does her chores, still keeps the castle clean and cooks his meals – because if she didn't, she thinks he would forget that he needs to eat – but they spend more time together. Share meals, talk…sometimes when she's curled up in a chair in the library, he comes and sits at her feet, listens to her reading.

Sometimes she catches him watching her. He stands in a doorway and watches, until she flushes and becomes clumsy from the intensity of it.

They don't speak of curses or true love's kiss again, They kiss, often. At night before they part for bed; in the morning when she lays the table for breakfast. Sometimes he surprises her, catches her around the waist and kisses her mouth, her face, her neck. Sometimes they simply hold each other, Belle's forehead resting against his shoulder and his hands warm and tight at her waist.

He starts bringing her gifts. Some are little, like the rose he'd given her that day, the very first present. Some cloth for a new dress; a book he thought she'd like. Sometimes flowers appear in her room.

Some gifts are bigger, more significant.

He gives her a necklace made from strands of his gold plaited together, and tells her if she sees the Queen again, the necklace will give her some protection. Tells her that if she's wearing it, he will hear her calling his name from anywhere in the world.

He gives her a garden – sweeps back the untended wildness that surrounds his castle and reveals flower beds, lawns, even a small hedge maze. It's a display of power that is astonishing, and she is a little nervous, asks what is the price of such magic. But Rumplestiltskin shakes his head, says nothing, and Belle lets it be forgotten, goes into the garden every day to tend her plants.

He gives her himself, bit by bit, piece by piece. With every day that passes, he gives a little more of himself, reveals a little more. He tells her of his son, of the time before he became what he is. Tells her of his long-dead wife. Sometimes – not often – he tells her of places he's been, people he's made deals with.

Belle isn't sure what she gives him in return, but then this is a relationship, not a deal. There are no bargains to be struck, no handshake will cement the arrangement. But he seems to be getting something out of it. Sometimes she catches him watching her, when he thinks she isn't looking, and the expression on his face is strange. Loving.

A new facet to the feared Rumplestiltskin, but this is all for her. He does not show this face to anyone else. That pleases her, somehow, even though she feels perhaps it shouldn't. But still it does please her, to know that this is for her and her alone.

They are learning each other.

Things continue to change, sometimes slow and sometimes fast. One day he lets her try to spin, cackles at her failure to turn the straw into gold and his mirth is contagious. Another day, she drags him from his wheel and takes him for a picnic in the garden, and they lie together on the warm grass, mark the time with languid kisses.

One day she goes into the town again, to fetch more straw and to buy those essentials that do not appear magically in the kitchen cupboards overnight. Milk, butter, flour. Some things the castle's magic cannot master, but Rumplestiltskin cannot – or perhaps will not – tell her why.

She is aware of him watching her as she goes, aware of his thoughts and fears, but Belle's heart is light this time as she walks the road into the town. This time she knows she will return, and so she does, reaches the castle in the evening just as the light is beginning to fade. Rumplestiltskin's relief is visible this time, and he asks if she encountered the Queen again.

Not this time, and Belle hopes she will never see that woman again. She had been, she thinks, so close to losing Rumplestiltskin that day when she'd almost kissed him in the hope it would break his curse. Because it would have been a trick, and he'd been so quick to assume the Queen had sent her even without that falseness between them.

He takes her in his arms then, murmurs words against her skin, scrapes teeth against her throat. Belle banishes thoughts of the Queen, embraces her love and is grateful to have him. She could have lost him that day.

After that, he is less cautious, less watchful. She does not often leave the castle, has little reason for it, but on those rare occasions when she does, he watches her because he wants to, and not because he is afraid she will not return.

And when he returns from his own outings, when he comes back from making the deals that have caused him to be so feared, Belle welcomes him back with a smile and a kiss, and hides away the fear that one day he will not come back.

Because she knows the Queen is his enemy, and Belle is not so foolish as to think there are no other enemies. He has made many, in the long years since he became what he is, the long years of deals that always – always – turn out to be for his own benefit.

It's not his fault if they don't think things through, he claims, but Belle knows his ways, knows his tricks. She knows it has created enemies for him, and she dreads the day when they find a way to stop him.

One night she cannot sleep, lies tossing and turning in her bed. It is too hot, even flinging aside her blankets. She rises, goes to open the window as wide as it can go, leans out for a moment hoping for a breath of wind. But there is no wind, so Belle sighs, withdraws. She looks at her bed, the crumpled sheets so unappealing, and then leaves her room in search of a glass of milk to cool her down.

Rumplestiltskin is spinning; she can hear him as she passes the doors to the great hall. She pauses just for a moment, and then slips through the door that's been left ajar – almost in invitation, she thinks, and Rumplestiltskin does not look up as she walks towards him, bare feet almost silent on the flagstone floor.

"Can't sleep, dearie?"

"No," she answers, and goes to sit next to him. Her accustomed seat now, and he no longer flinches at her proximity as he once did. She leans her head against his shoulder, watches as he spins straw into gold, his movements deft and practiced.

"You won't sleep sitting upright," he points out, and Belle laughs a little, nods but doesn't move.

"I know," she says. "But I wasn't getting to sleep anyway. I'd rather be here than tossing and turning in bed." The wheel slowly stops spinning, and Rumplestiltskin's hands cease their movement. Her plain words have startled him a little, she thinks. He is still so unused to the idea that she likes spending time with him. That doing so is preferable to being alone.

He turns slightly, places his arm around her, and Belle smiles.

"What if I wasn't here?" he asks her. "You'd stay in bed then." Her smile fades; she doesn't like thinking of the business that takes him away from the castle at irregular hours. Sometimes she wakes to find him gone. Occasionally something, intuition or a sixth sense, makes him stop in the middle of a conversation, listening to something only he can hear with his head tilted to one side. Then he drops everything, leaves her alone in the castle and goes wherever he is required.

She doesn't like it, but it is part of him, so she is working hard to accept it.

"How do you know?" she asked idly then. "When someone wants to make a deal, how do you know?"

"Why do you want to know, dearie?" he asks, a caustic note in his voice, and Belle sighs, closes her eyes and leans closer to him.

"I want to know you," she says. "All of you. But you don't have to tell me, if you don't want to." She won't push, knows better. There are some things he tells her easily, now. Some questions she can ask and know that she will get an answer. Other things…other things are still hidden, and will remain so. His power is one of those things, something shrouded in mystery.

He told her, once, that all magic has a price. She thinks part of his price is silence, and wonders how much it costs him.

"I hear them," he says at last. "I hear my name." He lifts his free hand, snakes a finger down the line of her necklace, grazing against her skin. "The same kind of magic as this. But different." Belle nods, doesn't really understand but doesn't really need to. It was only idle curiosity, after all.

"You should go back to bed," he says then, giggles his high-pitched giggle. She has long given up wondering what he finds so amusing, so she just smiles at him and shrugs her shoulders.

"I know," she says. "But I'm still not tired." His hand is still at her throat, fingers resting on the gold necklace, and she lifts her hand, entwines their fingers. "Won't you let me stay with you?"

"Of course," he says, "as long as you wish." The words seem to escape before he can think better of them, because as soon as he realises what he's said he looks away from her, pulls his hand from hers.

"Forever," Belle whispers. "How does forever sound?" She, too, has spoken without thinking, but she does not regret it.

Rumplestiltskin snarls a little, pushes her away from him and stands up, paces away from the spinning wheel. "You made a deal," he reminds her. "Forever is already mine."

"I'm not a prisoner here any longer," Belle points out, but he's right. She made that deal, and she was perfectly determined to see it through. Still, she wants him to know that's not why she stays, wants him to understand. She rises, goes to his side, lifts her hands to cup his face and coaxes him to look at her. "Forever," she whispers. "I – I love you. Don't you know that, you silly man?"

"I'm not a man," he mutters, but it's rote, it's recited, and he looks at her with mingled awe and disbelief. "I'll hold you to it, dearie," he says then. "I'm the deal-maker. All deals are final."

"This isn't a deal," she says, a little irritated. "This is love. It's simple. Do you love me?" He says nothing, but there's a tiny nod, barely a movement of his head, and if she didn't have her hands on his cheeks she wouldn't even see it. "Then I'm going to stay with you," she says. "Forever."

"Forever," he repeats. "That's a long time, you know," But his hands fall to her waist, he holds her tightly, and she thinks he would like to never let her go.

"Forever," she whispers, and kisses him.

The Queen comes to visit.

Rumplestiltskin is out, and Belle is polishing the dining room table when the Queen comes in as if she is accustomed to coming and going as she likes, the doors opening without a touch and closing in the same manner.

Belle straightens, puts the lid on the pot of polish and refuses to be intimidated. She has Rumplestiltskin's necklace around her neck, and the feel of his hands at her waist.

"I thought you'd be long gone," says the Queen, and she trails a hand across the tabletop, smears the polish and grimaces when she finds it on her finger. "Did you try what I suggested?" Belle says nothing, lifts her chin slightly and watches this dangerous woman. The Queen smirks, just a little, although it's possible she intends it as a smile. "I'm sorry. I thought for sure it was true love."

"Did you want something?" Belle asks, won't rise to the bait. What she and Rumplestiltskin have is private, and still fragile. It's not something she would willingly discuss with someone she likes, let alone someone who Rumplestiltskin calls enemy.

"Is he here?" the Queen asks after a moment. "Does he trust you alone?" The smile develops fully into a smirk, and she tilts her head, sashays closer to Belle. "I suppose he did let you go once, so I suppose he must trust you a little."

Belle wants to put space between them, wants to back away but knows it would be seen as a weakness. She manufactures a smile, fake and fixed, and shakes her head.

"He isn't here at the moment," she says. "I'll tell him you called."

"Oh, I think I'll wait," says the Queen. "I have important business with him. Won't you offer me some tea?" Belle says nothing; she would not, she thinks, offer this woman so much as a mat to wipe her feet on. She will not leave the Queen alone while she goes to the kitchen and prepares tea – knows Rumplestiltskin does not trust her an inch, would not like her to be alone in his castle.

The Queen sneers, seems to sense Belle's opposition to her. "Frankly," she says, "I'm amazed you're still here. I thought he would have grown bored of you by now."

Belle keeps smiling her pleasant, fake smile. "Take a seat," she suggests. "He may be some time. Excuse me, I have to finish this." She picks up her cloth, turns her back on the Queen and resumes polishing the table. Turning her back is not, perhaps, the smartest thing to do, but she thinks it reflects how she feels. Reflects her attitude towards the Queen, this woman who is Rumplestiltskin's enemy.

This evil woman, for he's told Belle a little of the Queen's deeds and misdeeds. Belle knows what kind of person this is.

A hand on her arm, and Belle tries to pull from the Queen's grasp but the woman is deceptively strong, and Belle ceases her struggle almost as soon as it begins. She stares up at the Queen, feels fear curdling in her stomach and then banishes it as she remembers her necklace.

"Let me go," she says, voice low and clear, and the Queen smirks again. She thinks she has the upper hand, but Belle is unafraid, and it must show, because the smirk turns into a scowl and the grip on her arm loosens.

"That necklace you're wearing," she says, and Belle lifts her head proudly. "Where did you get it?"

"Rumplestiltskin," says Belle, a mere whisper of his name. She hopes it is enough, but even if he does not come, it makes the Queen back away a pace. Makes her look at Belle as if trying to work out how Belle fits in.

The door opens, and Rumplestiltskin walks into the dining room, carefree and disinterested. Feigning disinterest, for Belle sees the tension in his hands, the way his eyes move from her to the Queen and back again.

"What an unexpected…surprise," he says, and giggles his high-pitched giggle. The Queen steps away from Belle, frowning in displeasure, and Rumplestiltskin comes to Belle's side. Brushes his fingers against her sleeve, as if reassuring himself that she is unharmed. "But I'm afraid," he continues, "I'm not at home today." He giggles again, and Belle bites the inside of her mouth, is afraid now as she was not before.

She does not think that antagonising the Queen can do him any good.

But this is their fight, not hers; she cannot get between them.

"I came to see you about a mermaid," says the Queen sourly. "Belle and I have been passing the time of day. But I think it can wait." She draws herself up, glances Belle over again. Her expression is pitying, but Belle thinks it is as false as her earlier pretence at sympathy. "Too bad about true love's kiss," she said. "Still, if you can't have true love, I suppose a physical relationship is the next best thing."

She leaves; Belle closes her eyes. She feels exhausted, sways slightly. Rumplestiltskin touches her, runs his hands down her arms, over her face.

"You're alright," he mutters. "You're alright."

"I'm fine," she whispers. The Queen's parting words echo around her mind, and she opens her eyes, looks at him. Sees the desperation he'd hidden so well when the Queen was here, the fear he felt.

The Queen is wrong, she decides. This is true love. It can't break his curse, but that isn't because it isn't true love, isn't because the kiss lacks power. It's simply that his curse is stronger.

It's true love, and she knows it when he folds her into his arms, mutters apologies and reassurances that he would never dream of speaking to anyone else.

"What do you want?" he asks her one night as they lie in bed together, his fingers tracing whirling patterns on her skin. She feels sluggish, sated, has to take a moment to force her mind to engage.

"What do you mean?" she asks at last.

"Everybody wants something," he says, a snap in his voice, a bite. "That's why they come to me. They want something."

Belle opens her eyes, looks up at him. His head is propped up on one hand, his eyes dark as he gazes at her. She feels, for a moment, horribly exposed. The blanket at her waist but no higher, baring her breasts to him. Nothing he hasn't seen before, but when he looks like this she remembers who he is. What he is.

It hurts a little that even now – even as her time with him is beginning to be counted in years, not months – he thinks she must want something, thinks there must be some deal here. She had hoped that he was beginning to trust her, a little. Perhaps he is; perhaps he simply doesn't understand.

"What do I want?" she says slowly, and sees him tense, sees his eyes narrow and his lip curl "I want…rain for my garden." He frowns, confused, and Belle continues. "I want a pair of boots that don't have to be worn in. I want a comfortable rocking chair, so I can sit by the fire. I want –"

He cuts her off then, kisses her, fierce and possessive, and she wraps an arm around his neck, pulls him down so he covers her body with his. Skin against skin, and if his skin is darker than hers, a little rougher, she doesn't mind.

He isn't a man, and doesn't love as a man, but he does love.

Skin against skin, hands roaming across her body, seeking out the familiar places to make her cry out. Blankets pushed aside, Belle's fingers digging into his shoulders as he moves within her, gasps and moans swallowed in his mouth as he kisses her.

Afterwards she can't remember what they were speaking of, but Rumplestiltskin watches her again, a strange look on his face. Curiosity, bewilderment, and Belle reaches out to him, strokes her fingers down his cheek.

"What do you want?" he asks her again, and Belle sighs, shakes her head.

"Nothing," she says. "I have everything I want, right here." She pulls the blankets higher, rolls closer to him and rests her head against his chest.

"There must be something," he argues. "Everybody wants something. Some little thing you've always dreamed of…you wanted to see the world, dearie, didn't you say that?"

"Yes," Belle concedes. "But that's not something I want from you. Not the way you mean. I mean…of course, you're right, there are things I want. But not like that." She lifts her head, looks up at him seriously. "I made my deal with you, Rumplestiltskin," she reminds him softly. "I don't want any others. I just want you."

His mouth is pressed in a thin line; he doesn't believe her. But she can't change his mind for him, so she rests her head on his chest again, closes her eyes.

"Alright," she says eventually. "Something I want. I want you to be safe."

"Beg pardon, dearie?"

"She scares me," Belle says. "The Queen. Not because of what she could do to me; because of what she wants to do to you."

"She can't harm me, dearie," Rumplestiltskin says, an assurance that she's sure he believes. She's sure he believes himself beyond the Queen's power, and perhaps he's right. Perhaps neither the Queen nor any of his other enemies can harm him.

"You can't know that," she whispers. "You can't know." He says nothing, but he holds her tightly. No, he can't know. Nobody can know the future, not all of it. Not all the possible twists and permutations. Rumplestiltskin can perhaps see some of those twists better than most people, but even he can't know.

And there is dread in Belle's heart and mind, a deep and enduring dread that she can't seem to shake off. The Queen's visit had started it, so long ago now, but other things have added to it. Deals Rumplestiltskin mentions in passing, news she occasionally hears of the world outside.

Even the Dark Castle isn't impenetrable.

"I'll make a deal with you," she says suddenly, pushes away from him and sits up, wraps her arms around herself. Deals are something he understands; if he agrees to this one, he will keep it. "Whatever happens, whatever she does…don't think about me. Just be safe."

He says nothing, sits up and touches her shoulder with a gentle hand. "Can't promise that, dearie," he says, his voice unnaturally soft.

"That's what I want!" she says, hears the note of hysteria rising in her voice, hates herself for it. She's never been someone who depends on a companion, never someone to define herself by the man beside her, but the thought of being without him terrifies her.

"No deal, I'm afraid," he murmurs, presses a kiss to her shoulder. "Don't fear, dearie. She won't get me." He draws her back down, tucks the blankets around her. "Not her, dearie. She has no idea. Calm now, hm? Sleep."

Belle obeys, but the fear remains, cold ice in her stomach.

She isn't aging, Belle realises one day. She's at the kitchen table, pinning a paper pattern to a bolt of cloth that Rumplestiltskin had left on the bed earlier, and drops a handful of pins onto it, lifts her hands to her face. No lines, no wrinkles. Nothing has changed, and she has been here…

A long time. More than months. More than years? Time slips by so easily here, with Rumplestiltskin her only companion. She goes into the town occasionally, true, but the people there…they aren't comfortable with her. They knew where she lives, who she lives with, and they are afraid of her, although she has never given them a reason to be. Still, their fear and discomfort has meant Belle hasn't interacted with them much. She searches her memory now, tries to think if the faces have changed. Tries to remember how much the children have grown.

She goes to Rumplestiltskin then, leaves the pattern and cloth on the kitchen table and makes her way up to his study. He is writing when she enters, but holds out his hand for her, and she crosses the room to take it in hers.

"Rumple," she says, "how long have I been here?"

He stops writing then, puts the quill down and tilts his head as he looks at her. "Why do you want to know, dearie?" he asks cagily, and Belle purses her lips. Whenever he answers a question with a question, she knows he's hiding something. Knows there's something he doesn't want her to know.

"Tell me," she insists, and he scowls at her, pulls away and rests his hands on his desk.

"Long," he says at last. "A long, long time."

"How long?"


Belle nods slowly, lifts a hand to her head and closes her eyes. She can't look at him right now, has to take a moment to accept that. Years. Not just months, years. How had she not realised that? How had time slipped past so quickly?

This castle, she thought. This magic castle.

"My father," she says then. "Everyone I knew."

"He's dead," he says quietly, and Belle nods, doesn't open her eyes, not yet. She thinks about her father, and wonders why she feels little grief. It's not real, she thinks, but then…then she's hardly thought of him at all since coming here. She had made the deal with Rumplestiltskin to save him, and everyone in her village, but she has hardly thought of them at all since entering this castle. She wonders if that's magic as well, or simply the evolution of a girl who never wanted the life she had been forced to lead before she came here.

"If I left the castle," she said then, opens her eyes in time to see his flinch, "would I start aging again?"

Rumplestiltskin takes his time answering. He rises, goes to the window, bows his head. Belle stays by the desk, clenches her hands into fists and breathes a little quicker as she waits for his answer.

"Yes," he says eventually. "Yes, you would."

Belle considers that. She has no plans to leave, which is clearly what he fears – but why should she leave? She no longer has any connection to the outside world. Still, she has other questions, and she has to ask them. She crosses the room to him, stands by his side but makes no attempt to touch him.

The window looks out onto her garden; she wonders how often he stands here watching her.

"Why didn't I know?" she asks softly. "That so much time was passing? The castle – it's strange, I know that, but surely I should have known? I think about all the time since I've been here, and I can remember it all, but it doesn't seem like years."

"Magic is strange, dearie," says Rumplestiltskin, quiet and subdued in a way that's so completely unnatural for him. "It has the same effect on me. More or less." He hums for a moment. "I go out more."

"What's the price?" she whispers. "All the magic in this castle…what does it cost?"

"Your last laugh, and your first tears," he says, and it provokes her, the nonsensical answer. She turns to him, pokes his shoulder.

"Be serious," she says. "Please."

"Never more so, dearie," he protests. "That's the price. Your last laugh, your first tears…" He glances at her then, mouth twisted into a grimace. "Life takes life," he tells her. "You'll never have a child while you live here."

Belle is stunned for a moment. She touches her stomach, shakes her head slowly. She and Rumplestiltskin have been together so long, now, and yet she has never fallen pregnant. She has, on occasion, wondered whether there is something wrong with her. Whether she is unable to carry children, because they spend their nights in bed together and that's usually followed by children.

She's thought of children, with her hair and his skin. His eyes and his wicked sense of humour. She's thought of being a family with him, of raising their children together.

All magic has a price. She isn't sure whether this is a price she can easily pay.

"Alright," she whispers at last. "Thank you for telling me."

"You're still free to go," he says, doesn't look at her. "Choice is yours, dearie. The deal's long gone."

"The choice is mine," Belle agrees, "and I'm staying." She takes his hand, entwines their fingers and looks out at her garden. "I was thinking of putting in some more roses," she says. "Maybe some white ones. And a greenhouse. If I had a greenhouse, I could grow all sorts of things."

"Whatever you want, dearie."

Yes, Belle thinks, she is denied children and old age, denied a family beyond him. But whatever else she wants, he gives her.

One day Rumplestiltskin goes out, and he does not come back.

Belle doesn't worry at first. Sometimes he disappears for days at a time, hunting for something he wants or executing a particularly complicated – often, she suspects, particularly nasty – deal.

He came back, once, after a week away, covered in weeds and slime. Belle hadn't asked where he'd been, had run him a bath and tried not to laugh at him. Another time he'd come back so full of energy he was almost bouncing off the walls, and he'd danced her around the room before making love to her next to the spinning wheel.

So she's used to it, and she isn't lonely without him. She tends her garden, continues her reorganisation of the library, sleeps alone in their bed. She takes the opportunity of his absence to clean the windows in the dining room, the tall ones that mean she has to go up a ladder and balance precariously. He doesn't like her doing that, claims she's far too prone to falls, but they need doing.

A week passes, and Belle starts to get anxious. She sits at his spinning wheel and sends the wheel whirling around, stands at the window and watches the road, even though he rarely uses roads to travel.

It might be nothing, she tells herself. Any number of things could have happened to delay him.

It might be nothing, but another week passes, and Belle gives up cleaning, gives up keeping the castle in order. She sits at his wheel and waits for him, plays with her golden necklace and waits.

She tries calling for him once, tries using the necklace to call for him. She whispers his name, speaks it, screams it until she's hoarse, but he does not come. It's then that she knows he cannot come. Cannot, because he would come if he could.

Something is preventing it, and she remembers the Queen's dark eyes and dark smirk. Remembers all the stories Rumplestiltskin has told her about deals that have turned out in his favour. The enemies he has made over the many long years since he became what he is.

And she knows then that she can no longer wait.

Belle has no magic, has nothing but her own two feet to take her, and the kingdoms are vast. She packs a bag with warm clothing and another with provisions. Gold she has – the castle is full of gold, spun from straw by Rumplestiltskin's magic. She buries it in the bag, hides some in her corset. Enough to get somewhere to hear news of him, or so she hopes. She does not think of the journey back, forces herself to believe that she will find him, release him from whatever captivity has befallen him. And then they will return together.

She puts shutters in all the windows, bolts all the doors, puts large dustsheets over the furniture. She picks up her bags and goes to the great entrance doors, closes them behind her, turns the key in the lock and presses her palms to the thick wood.

"Don't let anyone in," she whispers. "Nobody is allowed in except me and Rumplestiltskin." The castle isn't sentient, of course, but there are layers upon layers of spells within its walls, years of magic use building up to create something that is almost alive. She feels the wood under her hand tremble, knows the castle has responded.

Nobody will enter it while she is gone; the Queen will not discover its secrets, and nobody will break down the doors to find Rumplestiltskin's gold. The castle will remain closed until she returns – and she will return, whether she finds Rumplestiltskin or not.

This is her home now, as well as his.

She goes to the town first, goes to the local inn, orders a drink and listens to the conversations around her. The price of wheat, the ogre wars, the recent disappearance of Prince Thomas, poor Princess Cinderella left alone with a baby. She knows about Cinderella. Rumplestiltskin had made a deal with her – her baby for the chance to become something more than she had been.

Belle has spent years hiding her wish for a child, felt almost sick when Rumplestiltskin had told her about the deal. He's made similar deals in the past, and the babies always go to good homes, but still…

She thinks they're connected, somehow, that deal and Rumplestiltskin's disappearance. It's too coincidental – a deal gone wrong, a prince disappearing, and then Rumplestiltskin…

Finally she hears something; finally she hears a whisper of his name. She tries not to look as though she's listening, sips her drink and eavesdrops shamelessly.

Rumplestiltskin, they say, isn't a threat anymore. He's gone, they've caught him, he will never escape. They. Belle listens, tries to find out who has him. They, not her – not the Queen, then, but somebody else.

Rumplestiltskin is trapped in a dungeon, she hears. Tricked by Princes James and Thomas, aided by Cinderella. Rendered powerless, his magic as trapped as he. Powerless, something that he hasn't experienced in centuries, and her heart aches for him.

Her heart aches, and she feels anger stirring at the people who have done this to him. And yet how can she blame them? She knows what he has done, the deals he's made and the enemies he's gathered. She can't blame them, but she can be angry despite her understanding.

The men laugh, pleased by their conversation, pleased that the monster is finally caged. Belle bits her lip so hard she tastes blood to keep from speaking. She pulls her hood over her head to hide her features, finishes her drink and leaves the inn.

She has a long journey ahead of her.

She is exhausted, and dirty, and her feet ache more than she can describe. But she is here. She is standing in the throne room, looking at the young rulers before her, ready to make her request.

"Please, sit," says Snow White gently to her. "Would you like something to eat?" Belle knows what she must look like, knows Snow White means only kindness, but she shakes her head.

"I want to see Rumplestiltskin," she says. The name sends a ripple of whispering around the court, and Snow White glances at her husband, rests a hand protectively on her belly. She is expecting a child, and Belle spares a moment to feel that familiar envy. The one thing she cannot have.

"I – why would you want that?" Snow White asks slowly. "I'm sorry, what is your name?"

"Belle," she says. She is unknown to them, she sees; she doesn't leave the castle often enough to be widely known. The closest towns and villages know of her, she's sure, but it's been so long since she left her home to save it, since she joined Rumplestiltskin. Her name has faded from memory.

"Belle," says James, "please come and sit down." He offers his arm and Belle accepts reluctantly, allows him to lead her from the throne room into a smaller council room. Snow White follows, closes the door behind them, pours Belle a glass of water.

"Now," says Snow, "tell us why you want to see him. You know he's dangerous."

Belle sips the water, lifts a hand to play with her necklace. She does not want to give these people – well-meaning though they may be – any leverage to use against him. And yet she cannot think how to gain access to him without telling the truth.

Without explaining her relationship with Rumplestiltskin. Even then…

Well, it's not as if they're married, and Belle isn't sure even marriage would be enough.

"He's my –" But she chokes on the words, has to close her eyes to fight back tears. It's been so long since she set out from the Dark Castle to find him. Now he is so close, she knows he is close, and she knows that she has hardly any chance of seeing him.

"Did you make a deal with him?" James asks her gently. "Because you have to know he can't hold you to it any longer. He's trapped, we've taken his power away."

Belle laughs bitterly, shakes her head. "Trapped," she says. "No, I didn't…well, I suppose I did make a deal, but it was so long ago…" She puts the glass of water down, looks at the two young royals before her. She wonders how to explain, what to say.

She decides on truth, because truth had gained her Rumplestiltskin's love in the first place.

"He's my lover," she says. "We've lived together for…I don't even know how long." She pauses, both to consider how long it's been and to allow them a moment to get over the shock of her words. "Nearly fifteen years," she says at last. "The ogre wars were threatening my village, and I made a deal with him."

"Fifteen years – you were a child," says Snow, horrified, but Belle shakes her head.

"I was seventeen," she says, doesn't bother to explain the strange magic the castle has worked on her to keep her from aging. "I knew what I was doing." She glances between them, sees disgust badly hidden on James' face. "I didn't become his lover then," she adds. "That was later. But please, can I see him?"

"No," says James at once. "I'm sorry, but no. He's too dangerous."

"He would never harm me," says Belle. "And you said yourself, he has no power now." Snow and James look at each other, and Snow's hand is at her rounded belly once more. There's a story there, but Belle is uninterested. All she wants is to see Rumplestiltskin again. "I'm not asking you to release him," she says carefully, although there's little more she'd like than to see him freed. "Just…I need to see him."

"Do you love him?" Snow asks her then. There's curiosity in her sweet face, confusion too but mostly curiosity. "How can you love something so – so evil?"

Belle glances away, shakes her head. "Love is strange," she murmurs. "And there is worse evil in the world." She thinks of the Queen, that dark malevolence. Rumplestiltskin had never allowed her into his home again after she had grasped Belle's arm tightly and looked at her like…

Like Belle was her enemy just as much as Rumplestiltskin. She can't quite suppress a shiver. Yes, there is worse evil in the world than Rumplestiltskin, who only became what he is for love of his child.

"I think we should let her, James," says Snow White at last.

"No," says James. "He's too dangerous, even locked up. You know that." They share a look, loaded with their own secrets, and Belle takes another sip of water, knows that this moment is crucial. She does not, cannot, know what they do not speak. She isn't sure she cares what is hidden in their gaze, what secrets they hold or what fears make Snow White clutch at her stomach as if she wants to protect her unborn child.

She isn't sure she cares, as long as she is allowed to see Rumplestiltskin.

"Alright," James says at last, although it's clearly with great reluctance. "Alright, fine. But you do everything I tell you," he tells Belle. "You stay back from the cell, don't touch him, don't pass him anything –"

"Whatever you say," says Belle quickly. "As long as I can see him."

The cell isn't in the dungeons; it's far, far below, deep into the rock, and the cell bars are made of iron. Magic repellent, Belle knows. After so long in a magic castle and with a magical lover, she can feel it a little. There's magic embedded in the cell and the rock, but it shies away from the bars.

"Didn't think I'd be seeing you again so soon, your highness."

Rumplestiltskin's voice, emerging from the darkness at the back of the cell, directed at James. Her face is hidden by her hood; he hasn't realised who his visitors are, Belle knows.

"Someone to see you," says James roughly. He turns to her, puts his hands on her shoulders. "Are you sure about this?" he asks, and Belle nods, doesn't trust herself to speak. "Then remember what I said. Not too close to the bars. Five minutes only."

"Yes," she murmurs. "Thank you." He nods, steps away from her, and Belle makes her way forward to the cell. Rumplestiltskin emerges from the shadows, and she lowers her hood, reveals herself. His shock is visible only for a moment; he glances over her shoulder, at James who is standing just far away that he will not hear them if they murmur.

"What are you doing here?" Rumplestiltskin demands, a breathless whisper, and Belle stops just far enough from the bars. If she reaches out, she could brush her fingertips across them. No closer; she knows the rules.

"I came to find you," she whispers. "I had to find you."

Rumplestiltskin lifts a hand as if he wants to reach out for her, smirks a little. "Miss me, did you, dearie?" Belle gives him a withering look, doesn't bother to answer. "You shouldn't have come," he says then, and Belle nods.

"I know," she says. "But I had to." He nods, says nothing. For long moments they stand silent, facing each other through the bars of the cell.

They're both acutely aware of James and the guards, just a few yards away from them. Watching them. Belle clenches her hands into fists, wishes she could reach out and touch him. Kiss him.

It's been two months since she saw him last, since he disappeared. Looking at him through cell bars and being unable to touch might be the hardest thing she has ever done.

"What happened?" she asks eventually, and he snarls, turns away from her for a moment – only a moment, is drawn back to her at once, presses himself up against the bars and reaches out a hand. She wants to take it, wants to touch him, but doesn't dare.

"Cinderella," he says, and laughs. "Poor thing. Made a deal and didn't want to keep it. Still, all deals are final." All deals are final, and Belle pities the person who thinks otherwise. "She tricked me," Rumplestiltskin says after a moment, dark and foreboding. "Still, until the payment's made, she won't see her beloved again."

Belle closes her eyes against tears. "And neither will I," she whispers. He says nothing, and Belle lifts her hands, covers her face. "I asked you to be safe," she murmurs. "I assumed it would be the Queen."

"Yes," he murmurs. "Yes, that would have been expected. Still, life is full of unexpected surprises, dearie." Belle nods, drops her hands and looks at him. To anyone else, he might seem uncaring. But Belle has spent years unwrapping the riddle of Rumplestiltskin; she knows him better than anybody else. She sees the longing, the despair, the rage.

She sees it all.

"It's not forever, dearie," he says then. "Nothing is, you know."

"We are," says Belle. "We're forever. I promised you forever."

"Yes, we made that deal," he murmurs. "Belle…" He reaches out to her, stretches through the bar, and Belle doesn't care about the guards, doesn't care about Prince James. She lifts her hands, links their fingers together, holds onto him so tightly it must hurt, but he's holding just as tight. She hears commotion behind her, guards rushing forward, but she keeps hold of his hand. After a moment, she hears the prince ordering the guards back.

Perhaps it's compassion; perhaps it's curiosity. She doesn't care, she concentrates on the feel of Rumplestiltskin's hand in hers.

"You see the future," she breathes. "This can't be forever. Tell me it's not forever!"

Rumplestiltskin doesn't answer for a moment; his hand grips hers tightly as he looks at her, considering.

"It's not," he says at last. "It's not forever, dearie. But there's no happily ever after here." He grins, bares teeth. "Not for us. But then why should I deserve one?" Belle shakes her head, wants to protest but can't find the words. Rumplestiltskin's grin fades, and he is more serious now as he has ever been. "It's going to get worse before it gets better," he whispers to her. "I'm sorry, dearie."

"Don't be sorry," she whispers in return. "As long as you come back to me." He says nothing, and she shivers, is afraid. "Rumplestiltskin?"

His hands slides from hers; he withdraws into the shadows of the cell. "No more happy endings," he says. "Go home, Belle."

"Alright, that's long enough," says James, and he comes towards her, takes her arm and pulls her away from the cell. Belle doesn't resist, but she keeps looking back, keeps watching Rumplestiltskin until the darkness swallows him.

They ask her to stay, Snow White and her prince, but it's too polite to be a genuine offer. She makes them uncomfortable; her existence, her relationship to the caged creature far below the castle. Belle thanks them for the offer, declines it, and Snow White looks at her as if she understands, a little. She offers a carriage, then, to take her wherever she wishes, and Belle does accept that. It had taken a month to get here, mostly by foot, and Belle is tired. She wants to go home and become used to the loss.

So she accepts the carriage, and she is home within a fortnight.

The castle has been undisturbed in her absence. She isn't sure whether the castle's magic has kept it so, or whether people are still too afraid of Rumplestiltskin to dare venture near his home, but either way the door opens to her touch and reveals everything is as she left it.

He'd said it isn't forever, but he hadn't said how long it would be, and Belle can't go back to see him. He'd told her to come here, and she knows it's because he's afraid for her – and anyway, even if she does try to see him again, she's fairly sure Snow White and James will prevent it.

They don't understand, but she knows they cannot hope to begin. Love is layered, she'd said to Rumplestiltskin once, so many years ago, and love of Rumplestiltskin is a layered mystery that even she does not understand all the time.

She returns to her usual routine, cleans the castle and tends to the garden. She reads more than usual, stays up late at night and sleeps until the morning is almost past. She hates going to bed, misses him most at night. When he's here, there are often long hours together where they hardly see each other, but they have slept in the same bed since…

For many years, and Belle makes a greater effort to note the passing of time now she's alone. She counts the days, marks off the weeks. It is important, somehow, to know how much time has passed since she saw him, even though she has no idea when she will see him again – if she ever does.

But they'd made a deal; she'd promised forever. And if the deal doesn't mean the same anymore, that doesn't make her promise any less important.

She goes into town more often as well, listening for news. It's there that she hears whispers of the Queen, finds out what happened to her – banishment, after her evil was revealed to the world – and hears too of the threat the Queen had made at Snow White's wedding.

She threatened to destroy Snow White's happiness, everyone's happiness, and Belle remembers Rumplestiltskin's words. No more happy endings, he'd said. Rumplestiltskin sees the future, and Belle knows it will come to pass. It is only a matter of time. All she can do is wait, and hope.

Hope that whatever happens, whatever the Queen has planned, it will at least lead to Rumplestiltskin's release. Even if they cannot be together, she wants him free.

He is not a creature suited to being caged.

Weeks pass, and months pass, and finally the day comes. Belle stands in Rumplestiltskin's study and stares out of the window as the darkness sweeps across the land. Devouring, consuming, a storm passing across the land and she cannot see what it leaves in its wake.

She cannot see, because there is nothing to see. Just darkness, and Belle is more afraid now than she ever has been in her life. She clutches her necklace and calls uselessly, hopelessly, for Rumplestiltskin. But of course he does not come, and Belle starts to cry as the darkness moves inexorably closer.

It eats the garden, gobbles up the grounds of the castle. It comes with a wind, and the wind seems to be blowing away existence, blowing the things around her into dust and nothingness.

The last thing she says is his name; her last thoughts are of him. Then the darkness rips into her, and Belle is swept away from the world.

For a long time she knows nothing. She, and everyone else, exists in something like a state of unconsciousness. Something like, except there is a vague awareness that she does exist, that she is still alive, that keeps it from being true unconsciousness. And when she wakes, it is with a sense of coming up for air after being a long time underwater.

Belle wakes in a cell. Disoriented, dazed, she staggers to her feet and finds she is barefoot and clothed in a kind of loose shift. There are people in the cell with her, and one of them wrestles her to the ground while the other wrenches her arm. Belle cries out, struggles, and something pricks at her arm.

An injection, she recognises, and isn't sure how she knows that. Sedation. She is in…she is…

Two sets of memories war in her brain, but the injection works fast, and she loses herself with Rumplestiltskin's name on her lips.

"How are you feeling today, Rose?"

Belle doesn't bother answer. She knows this woman – Queen and Mayor overlapping each other in her mind – and knows her best defence is silence. She's tried speaking before, tried asking questions or answering those put to her. It always leads to more sedation, more pills forced down her throat or needles stuck in her veins.

She doesn't know how long she's been here; time is more nebulous now than it ever was in Rumplestiltskin's castle.

"You know we can only help you if you cooperate, Rose," says the Mayor, and Belle's mouth twists into a scowl before she can suppress the reaction. "Don't you want to get better?"

Belle bites her tongue, tastes blood. Better. She is ill, or so they tell her. They say her name is Rose French, they say she is mentally unstable, they say she tried to harm herself. Tried to kill herself. She can remember it, but it's faded. Unreal. Memories of another person's life.

Her name is not Rose French. Her name is Belle, and her lover is Rumplestiltskin the deal-maker, and she does not belong here.

The Mayor says her name again – fake name, fake existence, fake world – and then she leaves, closes the slot in the door and leaves Belle alone in the cell.

Imprisoned, just as Rumplestiltskin before her, and Belle can only hope that in this strange new world he is free. If their positions have been reversed, he will be.

The drugs they give her make her hazy, make it hard to think clearly. Sometimes she remembers Rumplestiltskin, and sometimes she doesn't. Sometimes there is a fiancé in her memories, sometimes there is a chipped cup, sometimes she remembers standing at a window and crying as the world dissolved around her…

Sometimes she can think of nothing, stares at the ceiling and counts the tiles. Sometimes even that is too much thought and effort.

The Queen comes to visit her, and Belle thinks it might be at regular intervals but she loses whole days to the sedation. They tell her she's violent, they tell her it's for her own good.

The Queen looks at her and smirks, and Belle wishes she were violent, wishes she could smack the smirk from her face, but the Queen never comes into her cell.

Belle is alone. Always alone.

Because there are no more happy endings.

She wonders, in her more lucid moments – in the snatched moments between drug rounds, between one pill and the next injection – why she remembers. Nobody else does, she thinks, but she remembers both lives.

Nobody else but the Queen. She never says anything, never lets on, but Belle sees the truth. Belle knows why she is here. She is not here because she is unstable or insane or anything else the Queen says. She is here because she knows the truth.

Like Rumplestiltskin, she is now truth-speaker. Like him, she is caged because she is dangerous.

She cannot hold onto these thoughts, cannot hold onto herself. Her father the knight, her father the florist. Her fiancé who found her half-dead after an overdose, her lover the feared creature Rumplestiltskin.

They tell her she is crazy, and perhaps she is.

Perhaps they all are.

The nurses cut her hair when she's sedated. Wash her by shoving her into a cold shower, without bothering to let her undress. Stick her full of needles when she protests. Shove her back into her room and laugh when she falls.

Sometimes she thinks they don't feed her; sometimes hunger gnaws at her belly.

But she doesn't protest. Protests bring drugs, needles stuck in her arms and pills forced down her throat. Protests mean the Mayor is called, and that means that horrible, assessing stare through the hole in the door. It means those sickly-sweet questions about how she's feeling, the condescension about how she has to want to get better.

Dirt in her mouth, lies on her tongue, and Belle doesn't want to get better if better means forgetting. She won't answer to the name that isn't hers.

She won't forget him, not ever. She promised forever. They made a deal.

All deals are final. No further negotiation is possible.

Sometimes she can't stand it, the memories in her head pounding against each other. Sometimes she screams, hits the walls in impotent rage even though she knows what will follow. She can't bear it, this captivity, and she cannot think how he bore it for so many long months.

She can't bear it, and she calls his name, she screams for him until her throat is raw. She has never wanted to be the princess in the tower in need of rescuing, but she begs for rescue now. The nurses come running and wrestle her to the floor. Knock her out, drug her up, and she wakes tied to the bed. Straps across her chest and legs and arms, a gag in her mouth, and she screams against it but nobody comes, nobody cares.

Perhaps, she thinks, nobody knows she's here. Only the Queen, who comes and stares at her. She has a father in this world, but he never comes.

Perhaps, she thinks, the whole world believes she is dead. That one of her suicide attempts was a success – and she can remember them, sometimes, remember the pills in her mouth and the blood on her arms. Perhaps there's a gravestone somewhere in the town's graveyard, her fake name on it and false dates marking the start and end of her life.

Perhaps that's why nobody else ever comes.

One day the door opens and it isn't the nurses – isn't the Mayor. It's a young woman, blonde hair and metal star on the belt at her waist. Sheriff, her false memories supply.

"Hey," says the woman. "You're Rose French, right?"

Belle says nothing, sure this is some trick. Perhaps it's the medication, perhaps she's hallucinating. She has been in here so long and nobody has ever come to visit her.

Besides, she will not answer to that name.

"I'm Emma Swan," the woman continues. "I, uh…I've come to get you out of here."

Belle laughs, and it's a dry, rusty kind of laugh, bitter and pained. She can't remember the last time she made any sound, and laughter seems as good a way as any to break the silence. The woman – Emma Swan – looks uncomfortable, and Belle tries to sit up, can't quite manage it.

Lack of use has made her muscles weak.

"Out," she says. "There is no out. There's only here."

"No," says Swan, and she takes a step into the cell, braver than anyone else is. The nurses never come in alone, and Belle knows it's because she's supposed to be dangerous. "No, you can leave here. Regina can't keep you here any longer."

Regina; Queen. The Mayor. Belle shakes her head, feels dazed, her head clouded. She can't think properly, can't understand this woman who has come in and told her she can leave.

"You'll have to stay in the hospital for a little while," Swan says, "but not down here." She glances around, grimaces in disgust. Belle looks around too, tries to see with this woman's eyes. But she's been here too long, she can't see anything but the walls and the floor and the pain.

"Rose?" says Swan, and Belle shakes her head. "Come on," she says, "let's get you out of her."

"Let me."

Belle is still, frozen in place and shivers running down her spine. She knows that voice. Knows it the way she knows her own heartbeat, and she tries to sit up again, stares at the doorway and feels hope rising wildly within her. She had almost forgotten what hope feels like.

Then a silhouette in the doorway, a man with a cane, and he pushes past Sheriff Swan, limps towards her. Belle squints against the light, for a moment can't see him clearly.

He sits on the bed next to her, takes her hand, and she looks up at him. The face is different, the hair and the eyes and the colour of his skin. Two sets of memories work in her head, one life insisting she knows him and the other insisting she doesn't.

"Do you know who I am, dearie?" he asks her gently. Belle can't speak, holds his hand tightly and remembers the last time she held his hand in hers. Remembers iron bars and rules governing her conduct, and warnings about happily ever afters.

"Gold, you shouldn't – " Swan begins, but he shakes his head, glances back at her with a scowl.

"Hush," he says curtly, and he turns back to Belle, expression gentle and hopeful once more. "Do you know me?" he asks again.

"Yes," Belle whispers. Yes, she knows this man sitting beside her, even though she's never seen him before. She clutches at his hand, tries to sit up again, and he helps her. Puts an arm beneath her shoulders and gently eases her upright. Belle licks her lips, tries to find words.

She's been told she's crazy for so long she'd almost started to believe it – almost started to believe she'd never known a being called Rumplestiltskin. The deal-maker, the truth-speaker. She'd almost started to believe she'd never lived in a magic castle and watched him spin straw into gold.

"Are you a man?" she whispers at last.

"Yes," he says, and his arm is still around her shoulders, her hand in his. He doesn't move away from her, and she doesn't want him to. This is the closest she's been to anyone except the nurses in longer than she can remember.

"No more happy ever afters," she says brokenly, and he sighs, pulls her closer to him. She can smell his cologne, feel his hair against her cheek.

"That depends on your definition, dearie," he says. He's warm and comfortable, and she fits against him as if they've never been parted. She closes her eyes, lifts her free hand to grasp his shirt.

"You and me," she mutters. "Forever. I promised."

"Aye, you did," he says. "You wouldn't be going back on that now, would you, dearie?" He's laughing at her, and Belle smiles, opens her eyes and lifts her head to look at him.

"Never," she says. "I promised."

"Alright, then. Now, will you let the lovely Miss Swan help you out of here?" He grins, a flash of the Rumplestiltskin she remembers in the bared teeth and dark eyes. "Not home quite yet, I'm afraid, but soon enough."

"Home," murmurs Belle. "And – and she won't get me again?"

Darkness in his eyes, hatred on his face for a moment, and he looks so like himself. It reassures her as nothing else has, reassures her that she is not insane. This is Rumplestiltskin, and he is hers. Forever.

"No," he says. "She won't have you ever again."

Belle nods, and lets him slide from her grasp, watches as he stands up and leans on his cane. There are questions she wants to ask, answers she needs to hear, but it can wait. It can all wait.

He's here, and he will keep her safe.