He hasn't left his room in days, and Belle is worried.
Rumplestiltskin has some major mood swings, sometimes. He can be giggly and childish and out of control one moment, then depressive, melancholic, even sombre the next.
He shuts himself away to work on potions or to read, and she's used to it.
But three days is excessive, even for him, and he hasn't even eaten since he slammed the door in her face, and she's starting to worry for him.
If he were anyone else, she'd call him childish, and march inside and drag him out by his ear. She'd force him to eat something, to spin or tell her a story, anything just to jolt him out of his mood.
But he's Rumplestiltskin, her captor, the most terrifying sorcerer in all the Realms, and even Belle isn't that brave.
Finally, she resorts to sliding a note under his door.
Are you all right? Haven't seen you in a while.
If you're still alive, call out or something. Or better yet, come out and have some dinner - I made parsnip soup.
She sighs, figures she's done all she can without actually risking her life, and resolves to go in and check for herself that the stupid man's still breathing if she hasn't heard from him by tomorrow.
He joins her for dinner, and he's haggard and drawn, almost gaunt, but alive.
He's never screwed up this badly before.
Well, that's a lie: Rumplestiltskin has made more mistakes and caused more needless pain in his life than anyone besides perhaps the Queen, and this is just the latest.
But he stands outside Belle's bedroom door, and there's a knot in his stomach. He's written down everything he needs to say: he's afraid she'll throw a shoe at him if he sticks his head around the door,
He'd probably deserve it.
We had a deal
It wasn't my fault
If you'd just stuck around long enough for me to explain
Of course you can write home, as often as you'd like.
I apologize for insinuating otherwise.
He slides the note under the door, and walks away.
She still doesn't speak to him when she emerges, but she does make him dinner that evening, and his clothes appear in his room freshly laundered the next day. So he takes it that she can't be too angry.
Of course she writes him letters.
Belle is a woman trapped in a tower, alone. She would scream, and cry until her eyes bled, and pound on the door with exhausted, bloody fists, but she understands futility. She lives it everyday, after all.
So she writes to him.
She tells him that she loves him, a thousand times over. It becomes a plea for redemption from crimes she never intended to commit. She describes every moment of their life together, recites every kindly word, recounts the days spent reading in the sunlight as he spun gold, the hours of stories and companionship. She tells him how much she needs him, how brightly he shines in her dreams, and how much every day she spends alone burns her soul. She throws the letters out of the window to be carried away on the wind
But as the weeks in the Queen's palace wear on, her love becomes an accusation: words she wishes to throw in his face, to sharpen into razors that can fall from her tongue and scratch out his eyes.
Belle's life becomes easier when she starts to slide these letters under the door. It is then that the Queen begins to smile upon her. She hears the witch on the other side cackle, her laugh like grinding rocks, and feels a twinge of self-loathing deep in her gut.
But he hasn't come to save her, and he accused her of far more than this. If this is what Belle must do to survive, then she will revel in her own misery, her own disloyalty, for as long as it takes to buy her freedom.
He had been trying to bottle True Love, because his power means more to him than anything.
He had decided that this was his final masterpiece. For if he had a vial of the stuff, well, then he could make the skies bleed, and mountains spell out his name. He could control anyone he chose to, bend the universe to his command. He could raise the dead, if he so desired.
And all he needed is a piece of each half of a truly loving couple, to make the spell complete.
Snow White called to him, and he saw his opportunity.
The spell was completed, and he'd smiled as he watched the hairs in the bottle swirl and dance together. It was like glancing out of a window, and feeling sunlight for the first time in a century; like the first small taste of a freedom long in the making.
He's purged his castle of every trace of her, and feels better for it. But there is one room, her room, which still remains untouched. He imagined the air in there, the bedclothes and dresses left behind to rot, still smelt of her.
He's emptied the castle, but his soul is an entirely different matter.
There's a piece of paper folded up under her door.
She spent a night in the dungeon, after he lost his mind and before he threw her out, and he'd been entirely lost.
He'd wanted to believe her; he'd wanted to destroy her.
So he'd written her a letter, a pale and fragile thing, and thought to leave it under her door for her to find, if he decided she could stay. Or if, stubborn, foolish child that she was, she refused to leave.
But she left, and the letter remained unread.
There's still a piece of paper folded up under her door. It holds a secret, three words and eight letters that no one wants to hear from a dragon's lips: "I love you".
Words intended for a dead girl, for eyes that will never open again and a tongue that will never speak.
Rumplestiltskin had bottled True Love, and used it for the purest kind of evil: he's cannibalised it, turned it back on itself. The new curse formed from it will take them to a place where True Love is worthless, meaningless, and destructive.
He could have used a hair from Belle's head, stolen from her abandoned bedroom, and a hair from his own… but then the Curse would have been unbreakable. Because nothing had come from his own chance of True Love: nothing more than an early grave and an empty heart. At least Snow White and Prince Charming would have something to show for their insanity. At least their child would break the spell.
He feels the moment the Curse takes effect, and the world starts to shatter and fragment. He imagines that old note, yellowed paper and scrawling swirls of black ink, tearing and burning into nothingness. He imagines the sentiment going with it, wills it to be true.
It burns with every other trace of her; with the pictures she drew of her family, left to gather dust on her nightstand. With the bed sheets that still smell like her skin, and the books in the library still dog-eared at her favourite pages. With the simple recipes she'd copied with her patient hands, and the diary he knew she'd kept and never read, not even in the dark days after her death when he'd allowed himself to wallow.
Even the small notes she'd left behind the first time she'd left, when she'd worried about how he'd cope without her, crumble with the castle walls.
They're simple things: reminders to eat, to sleep at night, that stolen babies need to be monitored at all times, and that fires are easier to start than to put out. And a letter that she left on the dining room table, telling him that he could visit her at home whenever he wanted, so long as he didn't scare her papa.
The world burns, and Rumplestiltskin just closes his eyes and sighs.
Isobel keeps finding scraps of paper.
At first, she figures that someone had a nasty accident in a bookmobile, or that the town library was the target of some kind of prank, and these are the remnants of old town records and books scattered on the streets.
But they're none of them printed, and all in the strangest of places. In gutters, taped to doors, trapped under car wheels. She can almost feel their presence sometimes, palpable as ash, littered about town as if they're falling from the sky. The words call out to her, when she holds a scrap in her hand, in a language she understands from a lifetime of books and hidden poetry
They send her fragile, bone-china head spinning: they bear a script eerily similar to her own.
The loops are fancier, the lines neater, the handwriting controlled and practiced. But aside from that, from the fact they look like her best, neatest printing on a very good day, she could have written them herself.
These scraps are thin the paper sometimes almost tissue, and they fly away in the breeze. They say silly things when placed side-by-side, things like 'the mutton is stored behind the turnips', and 'of course you need eight hours a night'.
There are others, although they are very rare and much harder to understand. These are scrawled in round, messy script, shreds of paper that are almost parchment with words like 'sorry' and 'loss' and, bizarrely, 'chipped cup' written on them.
But she keeps finding them, both the thin and prolific and the thick and rare, and no one else seems to notice. Oh, they nod and peer and agree that it's strange when the evidence is held up to their face, in the clearest light of day, but she always sees the notes first. No one ever gives one to her, or points them out in the street.
She keeps them in a box on her desk, and it becomes a hobby.
Dr Hopper recommended something like this, a collection of stamps or dolls. But stamps are dull and expensive, and dolls scare her, all staring glass eyes and vacant expression, devoid of life or love.
These scraps are fragments of another life: a life lived by someone else, someone older and far away, and she can relate.
She is told that she was locked away due to delusions and hallucinations. Dr Hopper explains, gently, that she'd seen ogres at the door; that she'd run away in the night screaming about deals and magic, and someplace called the Dark Castle. And Dr Hopper's sweet, and kind, and never means more than exactly what he says. He says she's a brave girl, getting better, that she needs to build her life back up.
But she is still Not Normal, and people stare: everyone in this town stares.
So she collects her paper scraps, and smiles when people ask how she's feeling today, and avoids fantasy novels like the plague. There's no need to risk sliding back into old habits, even if her last months of freedom are a blacked out blur in the back of her mind.
Things change when she finds the last scrap. This parchment bears a name, and her world feels like it's collapsing.
When Mr Gold enters his shop from the back room on a cold, windy March morning, he sees a ghost.
Of course he'd heard tell of Mr French's mad daughter, released from the asylum and on the mend. Of course he'd considered crushing Regina's windpipe with his cane, when she smirked at him the first day on the street, knowing she'd won a tiny little battle in this all-consuming war.
Mary Margaret had walked free, and their deal was broken.
So she got her vengeance, and dangled the one thing he hadn't even known he had to lose in the world in front of his face: she was the girl in town with the biggest grudge to bear.
He'd beaten her father half to death and walked away with nothing more than a bruised ego.
He'd expected to never speak to her again. He didn't know if seeing her walking down streets, talking to Archie Hopper in the diner, living a mundane and entirely average life, having her close enough to touch and yet a thousand miles away, was better or worse than believing her long gone and buried.
But here she stands, in his shop, with an achingly familiar frown and a strange wooden box, and he is curious.
"Can I help?" he keeps his face carefully blank, polite, one stranger to another.
"I don't know." She answers, "But I've asked everyone else, and you seem to be the only man in town who hasn't called me crazy yet."
"Why would you be crazy, dear?"
"Aside from a stay in the loony bin?" she sighs, and there's a bitter tone in her voice he doesn't recognise, that makes him unspeakably angry against every other human being, "I collect scraps of paper. They look like letters, but only to me."
"You're Moe French's girl." He says, as if he's never seen her before, as if they've never met.
"You know that." No matter how many years he puts between them, she always sees right through him.
"Yes." He nods, and gestures to her box, "Let me see." He feels his heart race as he approaches, the thrill of the impossible pulsing through his veins. He comes to stand beside her, and he could brush his hand against her arm, if he wanted, but of course he doesn't.
Because he lost that right thirty years ago, and although this tiny girl, this stranger in his Belle's skin, remembers nothing of their past, that fact still remains.
The box contains every note she ever left for him, the little paper remnants he couldn't bear to burn. Fragments, charred and torn, of the place where they used to live, meaningless and domestic. Fragments that should have been lost when the Curse took hold.
And buried beneath, there lie scraps with writing that's sickeningly familiar.
She looks up at him, and her eyes are hard, "You know what these are, don't you?"
He nods, scrutinising every inch of her face. She's holding something in her fist, and he can see that she's shaking; her palm clenched too tightly, "Is everything alright, dear?"
"What is this?" she brings out her hand, and opens her fingers slowly, revealing one last scrap of parchment, lying in her palm, "Why is it burning?"
It's his name, from the end of his last letter to her, the only time he ever signed in full. Names have power, especially when spoken by one's own tongue, or marked in one's own hand, and Rumplestiltskin was careful.
He tries to take it from her, but she won't let go. Their hands meet on the paper, covering his name, and the effect is nothing short of electric: a current of pure magic, of fire, runs from their hands up through his body, raising every hair and sending a sharp shiver down his spine.
Their mouths crash between them, and the sensation is like nothing else on Earth. They kiss like they can't stop, like they're trying to eat each other alive. It's so different from the first time, there no chastity or tenderness here. He bites and sucks at her lips, as her tongue sweeps through his mouth; she's cutting off his air and he doesn't mind at all. She tastes of strawberries and scorched earth.
Then they break apart, and his hands are grasping her waist and hers are on his shoulders, and she's staring at him, her expression somewhere lost between astonishment and relief and utter horror.
"What's happening?" she asks, and her voice is so quiet, so afraid. She brings her hands to her temples, grasping her head like she's in pain.
"You're remembering." He manages to sound calm, like it's all expected. But inside, he's not sure if he should be guilty for shocking her out of her nice, happy new life, or overjoyed that she's back.
She kisses him again, softer, and he lets her control it. She's testing the water, hoping that the cause of her latest madness will also be the cure.
When she pulls away, she's lost for all of one more second.
Then her beautiful face twists into something too-old and ugly, and she's broken out of his grasp, "You're human."
"What else would I be?"
"Rumplestiltskin." She snarls his name like the foulest curse he's ever heard, and before he can draw another breath her fist connects with his jaw.
He's reeling, knowing he deserved it and stunned all the same. He watches as she grabs the box from the desk. She runs off into the sunlight, out of his den and back into the world.
She needs to stop doing that.
It takes her weeks of scrabbling for pieces, rolls of tape and more than a couple of sleepless nights, but she finally pieces the letter back together.
She can't face him, not now, not with her mind in such a mess and her heart in knots.
She had liked her plausible deniability; she had liked being able to call any hazy imagining she had of magic and fairy dust a delusion, a remnant of a disease she was finally recovering from. Magic is something that no one should truly crave; magic is terrifying, and unpredictable, and Belle liked her safe, physical world.
But she holds two realities in her head, now, and no amount of wishing will stop it from being so. The fairy tale of her past, where she was Belle – not Isobel, the florist's daughter – a princess, the beauty trapped in the Dark Castle. Those memories are pleasant, warm and sweet, and she doesn't regret regaining those. The nightmare that follows, however, is too high a price to pay. She can't look the Mayor in the eye; she hopes the Queen doesn't notice.
She stays home, and her father worries.
But now her work is completed, and she holds the letter with shaking hands. She reads his lyrics, his broken spell, curled up in her room; the words are everything and nothing.
He sculpted a world for her, a place long gone and forgotten. He wrote his story for her starving eyes to devour, the whole sordid tale of his lost son, his first murder and last human breath. How he stopped being a peasant spinner, powerless and afraid, and became the monstrous trickster who stood in her father's throne room and stole away his daughter.
There's no apology for holding her captive, no explanation of his motives. He admits to how he turned his only competition, her knight in shining armour, into a token of his affection, a rose to sit on her mantel.
His voice, high pitched and poetic, floats to her from what feels like a hundred years ago. He says he loves her; she knows it's too late for that.
She bends double on her bed, and cries harder than she has since she was released from the hospital, months ago.
Because the goddamned bastard never came for her.
Because she still hates him, with a power that shakes her limbs and crushes her bones, for crimes committed long ago and far away.
Because once upon a time, he'd loved her.
Because once upon a time, she'd thought her whole future lay in his love, that her heartbeat belonged to him, that they would dance in the sunlight and spin their lives together, into a tapestry of golden thread.
Because once upon a time, she'd stopped crying and begun to loathe his very name.
Rumplestiltskin: a villain from a fairy tale; a man – a monster - behind a glittering golden mask.
His heart lies in the repaired parchment, and it almost seems to flutter in her hands. The words cry out to her, sear and burn into her mind, and his name, signed in a flourish at the bottom, is the worst of all. And it's all the more painful for its truth.
He doesn't know what he's waiting for, but he holds his breath all the same.
He can feel his name, everywhere it's written. Not A.U Gold, a silly little pseudonym chosen to piss off an arrogant and oblivious enemy. Rumplestiltskin's entire trade was in words, in names, in bargains born from blood and sealed in ink. He can feel his name, sitting in her pale and trembling hands, and he holds his breath.
If he were anyone else, he'd admit that he was waiting for her.
For her to come home, and kiss his eyelids closed, and absolve him of the guilt he was designed to never feel. She has made him weak, and he waits for redemption like a man with a moral code; like a man repentant for the crimes he's committed, the blood he's spilt.
But there's nothing like a trail of blood to find your way home, and there she is, waiting on his front door step when he arrives home, his name in her hands.
She holds it out like a gift, like something fragile and precious, folded and cupped in both hands.
He takes his letter from her, and traces the dips and swirls of his own words with the fingers of one hand. He looks at her, tries to find the anger she'd shown before. He only sees the determination, steely and formidable, that he knows so well, behind her soft and impassive face.
Silently, tentatively, he eases himself down to sit next to her and eases his bad leg out in front. They're silent for what seems like hours, but her very presence – even cool and quiet – is like water after a lifetime in the desert.
"Why didn't you burn it?" he asks, after a long while. Her eyes never turn from the stars.
"Why would I? It's proof that you can tell the truth."
He sighs, and takes her words as a challenge, "I love you."
And quietly, so softly that he can barely stand it, she places her head on his shoulder. His arm comes to wrap around her waist, and he wonders how he came to be here, what bargain was struck to allow him this.
"It doesn't solve anything, though, does it?"
He shakes his head, and knows that she'll be gone by morning, that this doesn't mean redemption, and it doesn't mean forgiveness. But it's a start.
She holds up the letter before them, and he runs his eyes over the words. They're fruitless things, heavy and dark, and he's ashamed that he gave her such a burden to carry. Belle deserves to be nothing short of weightless, and utterly free. He is her ball and chain, the heavy stones in her pockets.
And there will be conversations, and fights, and endless recriminations. And the Queen – or Mayor, whichever face she chooses to wear – will come between them, and everything will ache anew.
But she's here, and breathing, and willing to try.
"The past is just a prologue," she murmurs, "It all starts from here."