For the first time in near-on thirty years, Gold wishes he were Rumpelstiltskin again.
If he had his powers back, he could tear his attacker limb from limb, and scatter the pieces in every corner of the forest. Such was the fate of anyone who had tried to harm him in the old world.
But here, in Storybrooke, without a charm or hex to his name, with his cane thrown carelessly aside somewhere in the middle and a man half his age and twice his size deciding to cause a problem, Gold is as close to helpless as he's been in centuries.
At least George Gaston has little imagination.
At least all he has done is smash something around the back of Gold's head and knock him unconscious, kick him a few times in the ribs for good measure, and tie him up in the boot of a car.
His leg is killing him, but he hasn't been forced to kneel.
This is an abduction, a beating, and possibly - although unlikely, knowing what he knew of the boy - an execution. But it isn't a humiliation.
The part of Gold who is still Rum, the spinner with a ruined leg and an ashamed son, is horribly thankful for that.
George's fate will be faster and less painful, in thanks for that small mercy.
But that doesn't change the fact that Gold is currently tied to a chair, with a pounding headache and aching ribs, in some Godforsaken cabin in the woods. With a six-foot-four youth glowering at him from the corner, and a gun pointed at his head.
"Do you know where you are?" the boy asks, and oh, he's trying to be mysterious and intimidating. It would be funny if it weren't for the being-tied-to-a-chair business.
"Somewhere just outside of town, I'd imagine." Gold replies, trying not to slur around his split lip.
"Keep your fucking mouth shut, then," George stands and comes into the light from the window, what moon there is illuminating his glowering face, "Or I'll blow your head off."
"You did ask me a question, dear, would I rather I didn't answer?"
Mr Gold wonders a little about the wisdom of antagonising a shaved ape with a loaded gun, when he is in little position to do so much as duck let alone dodge a bullet. However, if there's one thing he's learned from years of being threatened with swords and bows full of arrows, it's to keep an enemy off-guard.
George expects him to cower and beg for his life.
And once upon a time, he might have been right.
But Gold hasn't begged for anything in three hundred years, and whatever this situation has become does not change that.
George's fist collides with Gold's jaw, sending his head reeling and neck snapping back. His mouth is in agony, and he can taste blood where his teeth have bitten down hard on his tongue, but he tries, oh how he tries, not to show the pain he is in.
He doesn't know what George has planned for this - whether he is simply working himself up to be able to pull the trigger, or whether this is some kind of perverse trade-off with Belle, his life for Rose's.
Gold knows for certain that, if it comes to it and there is no other way out, Belle will kill him herself if it means protecting Rose.
And oddly, that fact comes high on his list of reasons why he loves her so very much.
"What're you waiting for, dearie?" he asks, his voice coming out a hoarse, pained kind of hiss.
George should keep his mouth shut.
Surely that is the first rule of holding hostage a creature who is cannier and more intelligent, more cunning than yourself? To not engage, or give your captive anything more than the bare minimum of information?
Knowledge is power, and knowledge of name, location and motive among the most powerful of all. Even in this land without magic, that fact still holds.
Mr Gold has his name: George Gaston, formerly SirGaston, a lower knight in the Court of King Maurice of the Marchlands.
And he knows they are in one of the little cabins in the woods, no more than five miles out of Storybrooke.
And now, George opens his mouth, and gives the last piece of information that he should have guarded closest of all. He even smiles as he says it, as if the war were already won and he is just waiting to collect his spoils, "Isobel's going to come find you, and then that little bitch is going to get what's coming to her."
Gold has to wonder if George has been reading a lot of bad crime novels, his words are so blunt and unimaginative. At least the Queen might have had more interesting cards to play, a more intricate word game to engage in. Regina might be a far cry from sane, and not exactly blessed with subtlety, but at least she's clever.
When he hypothesised the creature who could imprison him against his will and do violence without instant retribution, in all his years Mr Gold had never imagined a simplistic and brutish village idiot with a handgun and a grudge.
An oversight, it seems.
But at least, he'll live until Belle arrives.
Which means that someone, even if that someone is wildly unpredictable and most likely somewhat unstable, knows he is here.
Perhaps she's going to be bright, and call the Sheriff instead. Emma Swan could have George on the ground within moments, gun pressed to the back of his head and arms cuffed behind his back.
He's afraid – terrified, truth be told – though, that his lover won't do that at all.
Belle wouldn't call for the police and then leave them to do their work. Belle would either run and run and keep running, try and fail to leave Storybrooke and end up in the hospital - or worse, in Regina's 'special care', or even dead - or she would come and fight herself.
Who knows better than Mr Gold, who had been Rumpelstiltskin so verylong ago, how vicious a seemingly harmless animal could become when backed into a corner?
He doesn't know if he worries for her, for her safety if she runs or her sanity if she chooses to fight, or for George's healthy if she fights with claws and teeth and shredding fangs.
It is another half hour – thirty minutes of throbbing wounds, of trickling blood from a head wound and laboured, painful breathing – before headlights appear in the window. A car door slams, and George, who has been a silent and malevolent shadow in the corner all this time, rises to his feet and readies his pistol.
Belle's hair is tangled, her eyes wild, when she appears in the doorway. She can only be seen through the gloom due George's torch in her face, and the moonlight trickling in from outside.
She looks more furious than any creature Gold has ever beheld, with burning hellfire in her eyes and firm, unshaken limbs: a weapon set firmly on its purpose.
She carries his cane over one arm, and his pistol in her pale little hand.
"Back the fuck off, George, or I swear to God you'll regret it."
Gold doesn't know if he is proud of her, or completely and utterly appalled.
Belle has never been so angry in all her life.
Not the night she was thrown out of her childhood home, and abandoned to the world and its wolves by her own father.
Not the early morning when she ran for her life, scarred and burned and pregnant, and ended up at the door of a convent convinced she would be dead by nightfall.
Then she had been scared, lost, and deeply miserable. Anger had been an afterthought, something overshadowed by self-pity and recriminations, by a deep and abiding terror of tomorrow.
Now, her lover is tied to a chair, beaten and bruised and bleeding, and her tormentor is sneering down at her, threatening, a gun pointed at Gold's head. She knew she wouldn't need much more provocation, much more of a reason, to pull the trigger and end this once and for all.
Because Belle has been threatened and punished and warned and patronised all her life. And she has never been so angry, so ready to simply destroy anyone and everyone in her way.
And yet, somehow, it's still more than that. Because Belle is not some lonely avenging angel, and she is not a predator on the hunt or a sword drawn from a sheathe. Belle is a mother, and Belle is in love, and nothing matters more than those two simple facts.
The monster before her wants to tear a hole in her world, and Belle is furious.
But this isn't about her. Perhaps it should be, perhaps fighting for herself first and foremost would make this whole thing so much simpler, easier, a life for a life. But this isn't about her.
She doesn't want Rose to have to live with the knowledge that her mother murdered her biological father. That is a burden no child should carry.
Even if her daughter's realfather, the man who by rights should have been so in all ways, in blood and bond and everything else, is the man tied to the chair, and not the man holding the gun.
"What're you going to do, babe?" George smirks, and the sly expression seems alien and utterly ridiculous on his brutish face, "You going to use that water pistol?"
"Let him go, George."
"No." He takes the safety off of the gun, the click audible through the cabin, and Belle should be so scared, so terrified. She should be hurling herself at George's feet, begging for Gold's life, unable to do or say anything more
But the woman who would have trembled and cried, the weak little rabbit-girl who has never done more than run, is burned and dead and buried. Belle is a mother, and now she is a lioness, a phoenix born from ashes. And here is where she starts her fires, and fights her battle.
This is the end of the story: this is where the war is won, and the world realigns itself.
"I'm serious," she leans on Gold's cane, draws more strength from it, the strength of the man who held and absorbed every cry and tear, who took her in from the cold and coaxed her from under the table and even now, even when he is so weak and so broken, is the one who makes her brave.
The calm of raw and murderous rage makes her stance almost casual, almost practiced and uncaring, as she raises the gun, "Let him go."
"You want your boyfriend back? Fine. Let me have my kid and we'll call it even."
And she must have known, must have thought at some moment that Rose would be what he is after. Of course she is: Belle herself would – and can and will– kill with her bare hands for that baby girl. But George isn't doing this for love: George feels she has something that belongs to him, and he won't stand for being stolen from.
The fact that, the one time he'd been near Rose, all he'd done was shout and threaten and hiss is, apparently, beside the point.
Her daughter is not property to be traded. Rose is a girl with a beaming smile and a bright, wonderful life in front of her: Rose is a princess in need of protection.
And somewhere, Belle has become a knight in armour, ready to slash flesh and hack bone to keep that smile in place.
She is a warrior, and so she cocks her pistol and aims it at George's chest, "Get the fuck out of here, George, or so help me I will kill you where you stand."
"Why not kill your boyfriend instead, huh Is? Then we can be a family."
"He's Rose's father, not you." she grinds out, his use of that word like gas on a flame, roaring and consuming her, a kind of red mist descending. She can feel what had been left of her reason slipping away, and she lets it go without regret.
His face darkens, any trace of his terrible charming psychopath act long gone and lost. He is an ogre, a monsterwith a face to match, and a growling, threatening voice, "Take that back."
Maybe she had been wrong: maybe he is doing this out of some twisted, perverted paternal instinct, out of some pale imitationof love.
The very idea just makes her all the more certain that he needs to be gone. Forever.
He'd said he loved her, too, right before he cut her face and burned her skin.
His love is violent and dangerous, corrosive and acidic. It is jealous and possessive, and it burns through and destroys everything it touched. The idea of it even coming within a mile of Rose makes Belle's blood boil.
But she's found the monster's weakness, and so she continues to drive the knife in deeper, "I love him, George, and so does Rose. Weare family, and you're not going to fuck that up."
"Oh, yeah?" He nods, voice shaking and eyes manic, and for the first time since she arrived Belle is genuinely frightened. "Family, huh? With this fucking bastard?" He turns to Gold, gun raised and hand shaking, and Belle wants to hurl herself forward, put herself between her love and the bullet.
"See how far family gets you in Hell." George spits, and in the split second between his words and the movement of his finger, Belle lunges forwards and full-body tackles, her weight and momentum sending them crashing to the cabin floor.
The gun fires; Gold slumps in his chair.
Belle looks up, and sees his still and crumpled form. She screams, an incoherent howl, the cry of an animal in mortal pain. She still holds Gold's cane in her hand, the gun having skittered off to the side, and she brings it down as hard as she can again and again and again, onto every soft and vulnerable inch of George's worthless body.
"Stop!" Gaston yells, "Isobel, please!"
She doesn't hear him, all she can hear is pounding, rushing, roaring blood and that gunshot, that crack that shattered the Universe.
"He's gone!" she cries, and she's sobbing as she brings her weapon down again and again "Forever, you took him away from me!"
She can feel ribs crack and cuts form on his skin, and yet she keeps going. Even as he pleads and begs for her to stop, even as his nose breaks beneath her bruised and bloodied fist and his face becomes a swollen mess of cuts and welts.
"It's your fault! It's all your fault!"
Because Mr Gold is cold and still in his chair, and this is the beast who shot him.
Because she has been alone for the past eight years, and this is the man who tore away everything she loved, everyone who cared for her, who made sure she stayed alone, that all happiness was tainted.
Because her heart has been ripped into a hundred bleeding little shreds of flesh, and she cannot stop, not ever, she drops the cane and goes forth with nails and fists, beating holes and pits into his soft – curiously fragile, when all was said and done– skin. His bones break as easily as anything, like snapping toothpicks.
She cannot stop, and only when he is unconscious, bleeding from the head and entirely still, only when he is defeated, does she see past her bloodlust and remember her lover, slumped in the chair.
And she can hardly see for tears, hardly hear for her own wailing cries, but she pulls what she can of her skin back together and stands, staggers across the room to the chair containing what is left of her lover, and throws her arms over his shoulder, cradling his body in her arms.
She's sobbing into his blood-stained jacket, broken and screaming and two inches from insane.
The world has been torn apart and sent careening into Hell, and Belle can't feel anything, not one moment of any of it. Everything is in her pounding, fraying heart and trembling bones and sickened stomach: everything is his cold and shattered body.
But then, out of nowhere, when all is gone and lost, he groans, a grunt of pain. Then again, and the tiny little sound cuts through her sobbing long enough for her to pull back, to look at him.
"Gold?" she asks, voice tinier than she's ever heard it, so desperate for it to be true, for there to have been a genuine sign of life.
"B-" he coughs, struggles, and she rushes to loosen the ropes, to untie the crude knots Gaston bound him with. "Belle?"
And now she's crying again, but her tears are pure joy as she kisses his swollen and bleeding face, his black eyes and temples. She is kissing every part of him she can find, every inch of his face, hoping that she can somehow heal him with just her lips, just the hopes brimming on her tongue.
He falls forward and she catches him, easing him to the ground. There is a nasty bullet wound in his shoulder, where Gaston shot him, but he is conscious and breathing and it's like the world is coming back to life, like the sunrise after twenty years of night.
She cradles his head in her arms, "You're alive." She weeps, as she brings his head up to hers and kisses his mouth, trying not to drown, trying to breathe in everything that he is. "You're alive, oh my God, you're alive," she whispers it again and again, like a blessing and a prayer. "I love you so much, I love you..."
"I love you," he manages to speak, just about, and she kisses his lips, sealing the words between them, as if it will keep them true, stop anything from ever tearing them apart.
"Ambulance?" he says, and she stares at him in confusion, brain shut down and unable to process.
"Bullet wound?" he says, and cracks a weak little smile, and she doesn't know how he can still be thinking straight and smilingafter all that has happened.
She pulls her cell phone out of her cardigan pocket and dials 911.
Mr Gold hadn't known that he had as many bones as he does, but they're all apparently fractured or broken.
Well, 'all' is an overstatement. He has a fractured left arm, serious damage to his left shoulder and some severe bruising to his face.
His arm and shoulder will take time and physiotherapy, but in the process of sorting it out they also took a look at his knee. Dr Whale had told him just this morning that, if he wanted, they could include his bad leg in the surgery and physio, and perhaps he'll be able to walk without a cane within twelve months.
It's funny: twenty-eight years since he became human again, and he never considered that modern medicine could help with his Ogre War injury from three centuries and a whole world ago.
And yet, despite all his wounds, his situation is still not half as bad as the condition that George is in. He's still in intensive care, although the paramedics got to him in enough time that he'll live, and probably make something resembling a full recovery. Gold hopes that it will be a slow and painful one.
His little Belle has done some serious damage to him, but Dr Whale is doing his level best to put it right.
Mr Gold wakes up in his hospital bed, and misses her instantly.
She'd held his hand all the way to the hospital, and stayed with him as long as she possibly could before he was told to get some rest and she was sent home.
He knows it's for the best: she needs to be with Rose right now.
It didn't mean that the pain of her absence wasn't like an axe-wound in his back. He hopes that this feeling will wear off: it'll be awfully inconvenient if he has to be in physical pain whenever she is not by his side for the rest of his life.
But, no, there she is, coming down the empty ward to his bedside, with Rose in her arms.
His heart is singing some ridiculous little happy song, and he has no intention at all of telling it to shut up.
Because Belle is whole, with just a few bandages on her knuckles, and here, and smiling, and the world makes sense again.
"How are you feeling?" she asks, after she's leaned down and pressed a soft kiss to his forehead, and taken a seat in the armchair by his bed.
"Like I've been run over with a steamroller," he answers, "You?"
She gives a curious little laugh, short and a little sad, "Pretty much the same." She looks at him, eyes narrowed, and he has to wonder what she could possibly be thinking about, "Can you sit up?"
"What does it look like I'm doing?"
"Lounging." She smirks at him, and he takes her challenge.
He sits up properly, uses the little controls on his bed to prop him up, and she snickers at him.
"What?" he asks, frowning, a little affronted.
"You better not get used to having one of those," she warns, "You'll be home soon where there're no reclining beds." She giggles at the mock-misery on his face, and he can't help but grin, her laugh is so infectious. Then, she gathers Rose securely in her arms, and places her firmly in Gold's lap, leaning her against his good right arm, which is miraculously unharmed and intact.
He's utterly stunned.
She's never willingly handed him her child before, and even though he loves her, knows she feels the same, it's still a massive gesture.
Rose doesn't seem to notice much: she just looks at him, all wide blue eyes the same shade as her mother's, and then goes back to her careful examination of her own fist.
He holds her close, this precious little thing, his daughter in all but blood, and his heart feels it might burst it's so full.
"I'm..." she looks down, as if she can't think of what to say. He can sympathise: there're so many things she needs to hear, and he can't pick which one should be said first. "I'm sorry about... with George. You shouldn't have been dragged into that."
And of all the things for her to say, that's the worst and yet the most expected. Because of course she would blame herself, because she's Belle and she can't understand why someone would willingly walk through fire for her, that he would have died in that cabin and thought it a worthwhile death if it meant that she was safe.
Mr Gold - who was once Rumpelstiltskin, a selfish, lying coward - would have willingly laid down his life for this battered, heartsick woman and her child. Somehow, in between kisses and freshly-laundered sheets, midnight talks and peaceful co-existence, Belle - who was once Isobel, a frightened rabbit on the run - has made him brave.
"You came and saved my life, beat a man half to death, and you think it's me you have to apologise to?" he shakes his head, trying not to shake her, trying not to reach for her and attempt to physically pull this part of her out, and grind it beneath his heel.
"George was trying to get to me." She says, "And because of that, you're in the hospital. So, yes, I'm apologising, because it's my fault that you got hurt."
"Did you come to my shop and smash a heavy vase around the back of my head?"
"No, of course not, but-"
"And did you tie me up, drag me into the woods and give me two black eyes and a mouth full of blood?"
She winced, but shook her head, "No."
"And did you shoot me in the shoulder?"
"He shot you to try and get to me."
"Exactly. Heshot me. That's it, that's the end of it, the man's a psychopath and a criminal, and he did all of that on his own. And how you can still blame yourself for his crimes is beyond me."
She's staring at him, the hurt in her eyes raw and deep and oh, so fresh. She wantsto believe him, he can see that, but maybe some wounds are too deep for bandages and anaesthetic. "He wasn't like this before me." She murmurs, "He never would have done this."
"What did I tell you, three months ago?" he asks, and his voice is harsher than perhaps it should be, although his hands stay gentle and soothing on Rose's head and back.
"I... don't remember. Lots of things."
"After the first time George Gaston caused a problem, when you first started spouting this nonsense,
'turning men into monsters' or something, do you remember what I told you?"
"That I was insane?" she asks, eyebrows raised in a feeble attempt at humour. But he's intent, determined: he doesn't let her off that easily.
"No. I warned you that if you said anything like that again, I would be forced to do something drastic."
"Oh." She's chewing her lip, and he wishes he could just kiss her and never stop. But he has to say this first, and it's going to be a while before he's well enough to do anything anyway, and this is more important than one more kiss out of a hundred thousand. "What're you going to do?"
He can see the fear lurking behind her eyes, the stupid apprehension that he hopes she won't always carry. She's probably imagining that he'll tell her to move out of the house, hurl her back into her father's home.
Knowing what state he found her in back in the old world, their true first meeting, there wasn't a chance in Hell that that would happen.
But she has more issues and emotional walls than even he himself, and so she worries.
"I'm going to... make a liar of you." he grins, knowing that she won't understand and enjoying her confusion.
"There you go again," he's almost laughing, shifting Rose to lie across his lap so he can feel under his pillow for the packet that Sister Astrid brought over this morning. He might or might not have offered to slash the nuns' rent in half this month in return for her running a little errand. He is feeling generous, this day of all days, and the little parcel from his shop is in his hands, and he can't keep the smile from his face, "You need to stop apologising, dearie."
"You're going to make a liar of me?" she frowns, still confused but unable to be annoyed when he's grinning so widely, "I don't understand..."
"You said you make men into monsters, correct? I'm going to prove you wrong."
He pulls a little box out of the parcel, and hands it to her almost negligently, resting Rose back across his arm and watching with concealed attention as Belle opens the ring box, her frown turning to an expression of utter surprise.
She looks back to him, and his eyes are on her face, "Monsters don't get married, now do they?"
She stares at him dumbfounded, and slowly shakes her head. "Are-are you sure?" her voice is trembling, and that that should even be in question is a sorry state of affairs. He vows to spend the rest of his life, however long that would be, correcting it.
"Why wouldn't I be? One more deal, hmm? Marry me."
She's crying, and staring at him, and for all of two seconds he's afraid she's found a reason to say no, a way of running away from this as well.
But then she's beaming, and nodding, and her arms are around his neck and she's hugging him as tight as she can without hurting him, without crushing their daughter.