It was usually easier to drink than remember. Most nights he could force himself to forget, and on the nights he couldn't the whiskey would do the job for him. The alcohol in this world wasn't as strong as what he was used to, but if he took in enough of it the same affect would be granted. Numbness, nothing more, that was the goal.

"I will go with you. Forever."

If only that were the case.

Twenty-eight years. Twenty-eight.

That was how long he'd been here in this blasted world, and now Emma Swan waltzes in and changes everything. Tonight drinking wouldn't help, no matter how much he wanted to retreat into the fuzzy state of mind that seemed to cancel out even the worst of sorrows- the whiskey would be no better than water to an ache that went into his very soul. No, drinking was out of the question, because even after his fourth glass nothing was going away, it was only amplified.

He gave up on the glass and started drinking straight from the bottle.
Every single night he saw her face. Every damned night he would close his eyes, and see her bright blue eyes staring at him, see her smile and the way she wasn't afraid of him or repulsed by him, and curse every second of his sorry life for ever letting her go. He cursed Regina for forcing her away from him, for getting to him and using her to do it. They had a personal war, the two of them, over something long gone and not mentioned for centuries between them… but she had gotten caught in the crossfire.

She'd gotten caught in the crossfire, and gotten caught in his anger. He had shoved her away, and at the time he had told himself that she didn't love him.
"Love is… love is layered. Love is a mystery to be uncovered."

And then he'd seen her, seen her sitting and waiting in the dungeon. He'd brought her tea and something to eat, and she'd simply looked at him without saying a word. That was all. She'd looked at him, looked right into his eyes, and he could see every single unshed tear in those bright eyes- too bright, like they burned from infection or fever or perhaps something altogether more potent. She blinked too often and he knew it was because she'd been crying, but she didn't look it except for the faint lines of red in the whites of her eyes, the slight flush in her cheeks that no one but him would notice in such low lighting.

She may have been the daughter of a night, but she carried herself like a princess and was far more intelligent and beautiful than any queen he had ever known. She didn't look scared, she looked like she knew every single inch of him and would chastise him like a mother might chastise a child if she opened her mouth. But no, the only words that ever came out of her rose red lips were "Thank you, Rumpelstiltskin."

A sincere thank you.

Not a polite thank you, mind you. Not a thank you that one might say in order to keep your skin, but a truly sincere thank you.

On any other occasion he would have interpreted it as thanks for the tea, but not that night, not sitting on the cold floor of the dungeon, not with that look in her eyes. He knew what she meant. Apparently she thought he might come to his senses, but he'd been stupid and blind. True Love's Kiss wasn't something you could fake, but he was truly a monster, and one who hadn't believed that whatever phenomenon the non-magical folk might like to call "love" had any power over him. There was simply no one who could love him.

After he realized the fault in that particular assumption, he'd told himself she needed to leave for her own good. No one could ever be happy with a monster like him, and surely the kiss hadn't actually worked, had it? It must have been a trick of the light. When he looked at her he felt nothing but regret and suspicion, and a strange tugging in his chest that he mistook for betrayal.

"You were freeing yourself!"

Gold's head dropped into his hands.

"You could have had love if you just believed that someone could want you!"

The empty whiskey bottle fell to the floor with a clang.

"You just don't think I can love you."

His breathing went shaky, his thoughts clouded. Nothing would stop her voice now, not when she was like this. It would echo inside his head forever, until…

"Now you've made your choice, and you're going to regret it. Forever."

The first hot tear slid down his face, landing on his hands and running down his fingers. His body shook as he fought off the sobs, attempting to breathe normally but tired of fighting her, tired of running away.

I know you can't hear me, Belle, but I need you to save me.

Please.

I love you.

He would tell her a thousand times if it would make any difference, never let her go again, but he couldn't. It didn't matter. Belle was dead, and all the worse because she died having been shunned and riven away from everyone who loved her, taking her own life in favor of the flames set to cleanse her soul of Rumpelstiltskin and his twisted love.

Anyone who said time healed was a liar. Twenty-right years had done not a damned thing for the open wound in his heart, crying out for hope, crying out for Belle. It would be easier if she were alive, even if he had to see her every day in the arms of bloody Gaston, anything but dead. Anything at all.

Belle's memory would eat hi alive one day, he was sure of it. He kept the teacup because it was all he had left of her, but every glance at it only felt like the stab of a knife. It was proof of something that had been real, proof that someone had loved him, and proof that it wasn't a dream, no matter how much it felt like one.

Sometimes he wished it were a dream, wished his life were really that of a lowly pawnbroker who pulled the strings on his town, and not of the Dark One, a man who had everything he could wish for and had lost it not once, but twice.

Slipping through his fingers like water.

"And all you'll have is an empty heart and a chipped cup."

Please, if there's a God in heaven, let this be a dream. Let her be alive. Let her not even be real. Just please, please… if there's any way she can still hear me…

Wake me up.