A/N: So, just a one-shot that's probably one of the shortest things I've ever managed to write! :) Many, many thanks go to Saime Joxxers for beta-ing this for me and proofing this new writing style that appeared magically in this story, and to my younger sister (Knock Knock 7, for those of you who read Dr. Who fanfic) for encouraging me as I wrote it! Hope you all enjoy, and I'd love to hear what you think!
Disclaimer: Nothing here belongs to me except the choice of words. No copyright infringement is intended.
A Single Strand Of Hair
Her hair framed her face in glittering strands of darkness given light, liquid that shone and refracted and glimmered. It was hypnotizing, mesmerizing, enchanting; it was an opportunity.
His hand traced her face, just briefly, too briefly (seconds alone out of centuries that even combined could not equal this scarce instant). Fingers lingered, then moved back into her hair, tucking an errant strand back behind her ear. It might have been a deliberate move, premeditated and planned, but he did not think it was. He was almost surprised when he ran the lock of her beguilingly soft hair through his fingers until he reached the end. He was almost terrified when he clenched his hand into a fist over the single strand of hair he was left with.
Her eyes were wide and tremulous and locked on him. Too much too soon when she had just recently pushed him away and he had told her first his secrets and then goodbye and had walked away. He had not even known he would see her here, had not realized she was in the street, passing the opposite direction of him. But here she was, and here he was, and she had mentioned hamburgers again (strange how he had never before realized just how helpful the simple food could be). A time and date was set and then the wind had grabbed her hair, and he could not help himself.
No. He actually could. He could have stopped himself. Could have tightened his traitorous hand into a fist at his side before it could touch her porcelain skin and stroke through silky hair.
But he hadn't stopped himself.
And now he clutched in his hand a treasure. A chance. A nail to hammer into the coffin of his fears.
Almost, he dropped it, let it flutter away into the night. Almost…but not quite.
"Good night, Belle," he murmured, his hand safely tucked at his side, his treasure hidden from her view.
"Good night, Rumplestiltskin," she replied. An innocent, everyday wish nonetheless extraordinary in that she wished it for him.
She hurried away, and so he turned to leave himself. He had seen her walk away from him too many times already; no need to add another to the litany of images that could so easily haunt him.
It took a very long time to walk home. He dared not trip, dared not open his hand, dared not lose what he had just stolen. He might never get another chance again, not when she might not ever let him touch her again. She was not bound to him, by word or promise or contract. She could leave or ask to never see him again (as she had already done, and that still hurt, still seared), and he would let her, would acquiesce. Because he had let her go thrice already and surely it would be easier a fourth time.
When he finally made it home, he went straight to his basement. His jars and bottles, all his accomplishments (so empty and hollow, and wasn't that just the way it worked?) transported to this world so methodically, kept so safe through magicless years, and now waiting for him.
He let go of his cane to take hold of the empty bottle. It sat in a tiny circle marked by the absence of dust when he lifted it in his right hand. It was the only bottle in the small array of shelves to be empty because he had used up what True Love potion he had, had thrown Charming and Snow's hairs away in a bid to bring back power that had, when he lost his judgment, given him an avenue to seek revenge—and hurt Belle. Power that had saved Belle from being erased and yet had driven her away.
Her strand of hair, sitting so innocently (just like her) atop his palm, dark against white (a true reversal of positions), gleamed with hidden fire. It was long, curling gently, wrapping his finger in a caressing ringlet, curled over the edge of his hand.
How long had he been doing this? So long, yet his fingers shook as he threaded the single strand of hair through the neck of the bottle.
It sat there in glass, his method of proving once and for all what he could not believe. No True Love's Kiss here, no curses to be broken at the touch of thread-soft lips, no proof to be had about what was true and what wasn't. No way…except this strand of her hair.
Slowly, trembling, his hand rose to his own head. His fingers did not linger here, though, just grabbed and yanked, the pain inconsequential and insufficient (always, always insufficient). And there, where only instants earlier he had held perfection, he now held brokenness. Short and straight, blunt and ordinary brown that shone with gray when the light refracted off it.
All he had to do was slip this strand of hair to join hers and he would know, once and for all. He would be blinded (by light or by tears), would be unable to doubt again (by choice or by habit), would be forced to accept whatever the potion (or lack of potion) would tell him.
But she had said she loved him, and he believed her. Of course he did. Because she was honest and brave and beautiful in every way. And though she was honest and brave and beautiful in every way, so much so that it seemed impossible she could ever love a beast like him, still he would believe her.
This strand of her hair, already waiting in the bottle, was just a crutch, a shield wrapped in his magic, and that dependency had already lost him so much, so he would not use it this time. Would not allow himself to go back to that, not so soon after offering Belle something different.
His strand of hair, slender and solitary and sobering, drifted unheeded to the ground from slack fingers. He left it there, lost and invisible amid dust and debris of two worlds, and turned, walked out of the basement.
And yet he left behind the strand of her hair, safely stowed in its glass bottle. Waiting for a moment of weakness. A moment of doubt. A moment of fear.
And he was weak, even at his most powerful. And he doubted, because everything in his life had taught him to do so. And he was a coward.
So he kept her strand of hair.
And so it remained unused.
He met her, for their date—their appointment—to introduce her to hamburgers, and it should have been awkward, because they were pretending they had not lived together twice, pretending there had not been smiles and a rose exchanged and secrets told and True Love's Kiss shared. But they were also pretending there had been no shouting, no shaking, no throwing to dungeon floors, no lies and broken promises, so it was not awkward. Instead, it was welcoming. It was beautiful.
It was grace.
She sat across the table from him, sparkling and willing still and so very, very brave, shyly hesitant and compassionately sincere and defiantly bold, and he watched her, himself a dark blot next to her, a twisted flaw, wordless and afraid and wrong. And his heart hurt, filling him with tiny, stinging pains as the long dormant thing woke from cursed sleep and sluggishly stirred to shake away painful pins and needles.
She should not love him, but she had said she did and she was here, and he could not understand it. He thought of his strand of her hair, tucked away behind glass. Only one instant, one tiny spell, one strand of hair—that was all it would take to settle his doubts once and for all (or destroy him utterly).
But thoughts and weakness were scattered when she touched his hand. His heart was too full, too overwhelmed, to think of hair when she was looking at him so softly, so warmly, so shyly.
He gave her his own smile, payment for the strand of hair he had taken from her, and for a little while, he forgot what he kept hidden in his basement.
He avoided the library. It was hers, not for him to intrude upon and touch and break, a sanctuary he had gifted her where she could be safe from him. Not a dungeon, this time, except in that it locked him out.
He would watch it sometimes from across the street, the lit windows glowing so merrily, and he could almost see her through the walls. But that, too, was intrusive, and so he turned away, and crossed to walk on the other side of the street, keeping his eyes fixed forward.
But then, over ice cream and chocolate syrup, she looked at him and frowned (and oh how his heart, the stubborn, newborn thing, protested and groaned) and asked him why he had not come to see the now-open library.
"Did you want me to?" he asked as reply. His voice was such a tiny, choked thing, trapped in the airless space of a glass bottle.
She hesitated (and daggers clenched his heart in a vise-like grip as his hand rose, almost unconsciously, to tear out a strand of his hair), and then she nodded. "I want you to come," she said firmly. "Please."
He loved her, oh how he loved her, and she wanted him to come. Invited him into her sanctuary. Offered him entrance to her safe place as if that did not negate its whole purpose.
The strand of hair, in its small bottle, began to gather dust.
He came, as often as he could convince himself she wanted him to. Not too often because he was weak and doubting and afraid, but enough so that he learned the steps and aisles and books backward and forward.
Sometimes he pretended to read, tucked away in a cozy alcove. Sometimes he followed Belle with limping steps as she shelved the books with a lover's caress. Other times he stood at the door and watched her laugh and smile and sparkle at the library's patrons, young and old, beautiful and ugly, kind and rude, all alike.
Those times were the worst, dark and greedy and grasping, devouring all the other times in his mind. Those were the times he turned and walked away, not daring to look back, slipping away unnoticed and without being called back.
Those were the nights he would look at the strand of her hair, all alone and trapped and out of place, stolen. Those were the nights that the dust gathered along its rounded sides would be disturbed and brushed away until glass gleamed like diamond.
Those were the nights when strands of his own hair littered the ground, considered and then rejected (because after one was used, there was no going back). Yet he did not give in to the flaws within himself. Did not combine his brokenness with her perfection. Because he believed her. Because he was afraid.
Afraid of what would happen if it didn't glow and turn to pure magic.
Afraid of what would happen if it did.
"I haven't seen you lately," she told him, as if it were natural and common for her to be in his shop. Staring at him so tentatively. Scattering light to gather in long-dark corners. Breaking through the numb ice that had collected around his heart to fence it in and cover it up.
"I didn't want to crowd you," he said. Truth. Literal truth, not truth of the heart. He would have cursed the Prince for giving him that 'advice'—would have, except that it had brought him a hamburger and ice cream and smiles and touches and an invitation to the library.
"I want you to come," Belle admitted, and hers was truth of the heart. No magic was needed to know that, no compulsion, no craftiness. Only eyes and ears and his now-burning heart. "I…I don't think I really meant it when I told you I never wanted to see you. You know that, don't you?"
He didn't, actually. It was why he had worn a path down to his basement, why the glass bottle was littered with his fingerprints, why her strand of hair was never far outside his thoughts.
"I think you did mean it," he said quietly (and his traitorous stomach fluttered in time with his busybody heart).
"Then," she said, equally quietly, and from the shaky breathlessness of her voice, he almost would have thought she was as scared as he was. But she was brave and good and she was not afraid, not like him, so it was only his imagination. "Maybe I meant it then…but not now. I…I want to see you, Rumplestiltskin. I miss you."
The Dark One could not afford to grow weepy at a few words from a young princess. The deal-making imp known far and wide could not allow so few words to bring him to his knees and conjure tears. But he was only a man, if not a good one, and so he was defeated and crumpled and built up again with no more than a handful of sentences.
"Oh, sweetheart." The endearment slipped out, quick and agile and laughing as it left him in the dust. But he was glad it had escaped him because blue eyes brightened and shimmered and turned magical without any need of enchantment. He wanted to touch her, cradle her face in his palm, soak in light and warmth and goodness, but he didn't want to end up with another strand of hair for his bottle, so he settled for a smile instead.
That day, he closed the shop early.
"I was afraid," he said.
She stared at him (blinking slowly because they had been talking about the flowers they had just passed, growing in the shelter of a tall tree, stark and brilliant against mellow brown), her clever mind sorting through his confession and his careful, fixed stare forward. Her thoughts were so clear, so transparent, just like the glass, showing clearly the glittering hair inside.
Yet still he doubted.
"I was afraid," he said again (curse his shivering heart for the raggedness tainting the edges of his voice). "That's why I stayed away."
"Afraid…of me?" She was trying to understand, watching and learning and seeing him. So much more than anyone else had ever done. So much, so very much, and it terrified him, because he knew what to do with rejection and abandonment and scorn. Not so much with understanding and compassion and acceptance.
"Maybe," he replied. Thousands of deals had been made by the glittering, reflective words he spun together in half-truths and almost-lies, but he could not find any words, could not organize his thoughts. They were dusty and crippled and hidden away in deep, dark caverns of his mind where no one could find him, no one could hurt him. "Of you, and of me. Of us. I love you, Belle, and if you love me…I don't know what to do with that. I don't know…how to live with that."
They walked sunlit forest paths, sunbeams dappling and decorating emerald and copper. Beauty all around, but not for him. This forest had been nothing more than a hiding place for his knife before; now, with Belle, it was a place to walk and talk and tentatively weave their hands together. Silence broken by the sounds of their passage, by her sharp intake of air when he told her he loved her, by her soft sigh when he locked away the rest of his awkward confession.
"I do love you," she said. (Time stopped, then, all around them, enwrapping and enfolding and enveloping him in those words, because he did believe her after all). "And I don't know what to do either. But…but we can figure it out. Can't we?"
So timid, so unsure, and it seemed impossible, an alien concept that she was just as lost and uncertain as he was. It caught him short and tripped him up and made him stare at her.
She didn't know either. Just like him. They had been opposites, so radically different, so completely opposing…except that she didn't know how to love him either.
They were alike, after all, even if only in this one thing.
His lips curved up, miracle and blessing and relief all in a simple expression, and he threaded fingers through hers as adeptly as he had once woven thread, and she relaxed against him.
When her head fell against his shoulder, he was content.
He was happy, and he didn't need his potion.
It had been necessary, crucial even, to protect him, to break the curse separating him from Bae, to keep her safe. So clear, so obvious, to him, and yet not to her because she was frowning at him, shaking her head, disappointment so awfully, brutally painted there in blue. When she turned away, he felt his heart ripping in two. When she began to walk away, he was anguished and abandoned once again.
He was relieved.
Because he hurt and he disappointed and he made mistakes, so it was better that she leave. He had memories (so many memories of when she had loved him and been happy with him and chosen him) and he had her teacup, and things were easier than people, memories safer than futures. So he watched her go. He was bleeding and unhappy and alone, so terrifyingly alone, but she was safe now.
Safe from him. Safe from hurt. Safe because now he could protect her without having to worry about seeing her look at him with that look on her precious, beautiful face.
Better this way, really, and he believed that. Believed it as much as he truly believed that she loved him. Believed it because it was easier, so much easier, to believe that than to admit to the world disappearing beneath his feet and the sky closing into blackness above him and his future being obliterated right in front of him. Than to admit that he was utterly and completely left alone again, and this time madness was a too-familiar friend instead of the new and unique escape it had been before.
His house was empty and hollow, as it had been since Belle snuck away and left him with nothing more than an unmade bed and the memory of a few days when she had been his. It was even emptier now, though, because now he did not even have his belief to get him through it. Not even libraries or hamburgers.
The basement was better, more comfortable; it was not empty, was full and cluttered and important. Important to him, to Bae, to breaking this curse.
He had almost forgotten (during sunbeam days and ice cream nights and hand-held moments and honest confessions) that he still possessed a strand of her hair, kept here for safekeeping. For just in case.
For moments of weakness and doubt and fear.
For moments like this one.
This time he got all the way up to dangling his hair over the narrow opening before he stopped himself.
She had said she loved him, and she did not lie, not literally or any other way, and he thought she did love him.
But he had disappointed her yet again and she had left yet again and she hadn't come back this time.
He could wait. He could give her time. Maybe she would come back. Maybe she would surprise him yet again.
Or maybe he could be brave.
Impossible as that seemed, this latest hair of his joined the others to be trodden underfoot as he left behind his lonely, useless house. The streets were dark and deserted and the few who were out avoided him even more avidly than usual. He had only done it to protect them, to help them, but as was the norm, they did not understand that, so he did not mind that they blamed him and feared him.
He did not blame them. But he did not savor the looks and the flinches and the careful way they avoided him, not anymore. Not now. Because what if Belle did the same?
She was in her library. There was no one else there, only books and tears and recriminations and a librarian with hunched shoulders and red eyes.
"Belle," he said. He did not step past the threshold, not yet, not until she wanted him to. This was still hers, still her sanctuary, her refuge. He should not be here, not when it was better that it work out this way, he with the teacup and she with her library. Surely they would be happier that way, wouldn't they?
No. No, they wouldn't. He had been happy, had felt it pulse molten and glorious through his veins, and this new agonizing numbness and searing coldness was not happiness, not at all, not anything like it.
"You came," Belle breathed. And that must have been a good thing (so odd to think of it that way, to think of his presence as something someone would want), he realized, when she stepped forward and touched his shoulder and then wrapped herself willingly and wholly in his arms.
It was like a dream. And dreams didn't need proof, didn't need evidence, didn't need potions.
They just were.
She kissed him. Soft and light but not hesitant, not shy, not unsure. One moment she was laughing at him and swatting his shoulder with the back of her hand and shaking her head. The next instant her smile had faded into something wondrous and intent and her hand was resting on his shoulder and she was cocking her head to look up at him. He had been smiling, smug and pleased that he could make her laugh (after all that had been done, that was the least, the very least he could do for her), and then he had been frozen.
And then she kissed him.
He was not frozen, not numb; he was alive and on fire and moving even before his mind could process more than the fact that Belle had chosen this (chosen him) again. He pulled her close and she came and he had never thought to feel this again, never thought she would open her heart to him after what he had done. But here she was, her skin soft and supple beneath his fingers and the fabric of her shirt, her arms winding around his neck in that way she had of trying to keep him close, and her mouth was working magic against his.
He was lost in her, but was ironically found. She was here, with him, in his house, in the kitchen where he had made her breakfast and shown her the technologies of this world and daringly kissed her for the second time since her return. She was here with him again, and again they had shared a meal (lasagna because Ruby had told her it was to die for and he had volunteered to make it for her to save her from that fate), and now here they were, kissing for the first time since lines had been drawn and truths told and invitations given and accepted.
It was when she stroked her hand along the back of his neck and into his hair that he came back to himself. Once more inside his own head, isolated and going around in circles and probably about to ruin everything. Because her hands were in his hair, soothing the places where so many times he had yanked out strands only to cast them aside, and she could take a strand of his hair, but he did not want her to have to worry about this like he had to.
"Belle," he murmured (easier to remember her name than his own when she was looking up at him with glazed eyes and that tiny, joyous smile, her arms still twined around him). "Belle, there's something I want to show you."
Which wasn't the truth, not really. He did not want to show her; he needed to. But it was a statement he wanted to be truth. He wanted to get to the moment, the day, the lifetime when it was natural to open his mouth and spill forth the secrets that had been his alone for so many, many decades.
So he took her hand and he led her outside and down into the basement. Tension, thick and ungainly and destructive, raced through her, tightening her muscles and making her hand in his go taut, when he led her into the dark place where he stored all his magic. Joy and happiness and pleasure, all gone, wiped from her face, leaving behind (like a bad deal, a terrible exchange) wariness and sadness and the beginnings of disappointment.
Painful, that, but he supposed he deserved it.
"I can make a True Love potion," he said, an act of courage that would go unsung in legends yet was surely just as staggering as those immortalized in song and story. "Bottle True Love—if I take a hair each from a couple in that truest, deepest, eternal love. I've done it once before."
Her breaths were short and sharp, her gaze intent on him, filled with trepidation, an emotion that had often filled this basement. The bottle containing that single strand of her hair was at her side, next to her hand (she was oblivious; he was not), ordinary and mundane, free of magic.
He adjusted his stance, forced himself to meet her eyes. Courage had never come easily to him, not once, but he was oh so familiar with desperation, and judging by the disconnected look in Belle's eyes, he would soon be desperate enough to win her back.
"I stole a strand of your hair," he confessed, slowly to make certain she heard each word. He wouldn't be able to repeat this. Once would have to do. "Here."
She took the glass bottle from him, balancing it on her fingertips as she peered within. "There's…there's only one strand of hair."
"I...I was afraid." (How many times would he make this same confession, voice this same statement, before she left him as Milah did?) "I don't know how you can love me, Belle."
She opened her mouth, refutation or explanation or compassion, and he could not let her interrupt him, not when he was so close to admitting his weakness and doubt and fear and ridding himself of it all. So he placed his fingers over her mouth, gently, lightly, delicately. Tempted just to kiss her again and forget the strand of hair.
But he couldn't.
He had to do this. Had to admit it. Had to rid himself of this persistent flaw.
"I can't believe it," he whispered to her (her warm breath tickling his fingers, her eyes boring straight into his still and waiting heart). "I thought…if I could make a potion from our hairs…I would know. I would be sure."
Then, at his words, there was something birthed within her. Something alarming and new and never before seen. Something like hope. Something like opportunism. Something that made him wonder if she questioned his love too, if she wondered and feared in the dead of night (impossible, of course, but no more so than her being here at all). A ridiculous thought, an absurd fear for her to have. Of course he loved her. He had let her free of her deal. He had given up plans and sound judgment and patience for her when he'd discovered what Regina had done to her. He had surrendered the secret of Bae (the only secret that mattered) to her even when he'd thought he would never see her save from a distance.
Of course he loved her. How could she doubt it? How could she want proof?
"I couldn't do it," he told her before she could ask him about the singular state of the hair in the bottle. "I don't need it, Belle. I know you love me—because you came back. You always come back. You forgive me. You don't flinch from me. You are here, now, even after everything." And he couldn't help (he could, but he didn't choose to) but reach out to stroke steady fingers along her smooth cheek. "I don't need a strand of hair or a potion or magic to tell me what I already know. I don't need any other proof than the proof you give me."
Her hand was warm on his arm, even through his sleeve. Her eyes were soft on his face, as if she were seeing him in a new light. Perhaps she was. Perhaps, for the first time, she was seeing him as he looked without the illumination of magic casting shadows over him.
Or maybe it was only wishful thinking. She was too quiet. Too still. Too intent as she studied him.
He felt fear move in him (so unfair since he had been doing this to do away with fear, but again, that was the way it worked, wasn't it?), leaden and cloying and always so regrettably long-lasting.
"We don't need it," he repeated, as if repetition could convince her where truth had not. Truth—the truth of the heart, just as Charming had told him, so why was she staring as if she did not believe him? "I believe you, Belle. It's why I've never put a strand of my hair with yours. I believe you. And you can believe me. You can know that I do love you because—"
"Because you didn't add your strand of hair," she interrupted, her voice so startling in the dark dimness of this basement, relic of another world and another him (yet she belonged with him in both worlds, the old and the new).
She was smiling. At him. Smiling with her entire body, leaning toward him, into him. The fears inside him were suddenly weightless and floating, fluttering before the breath of her own truth, her forgiveness and acceptance and beauty, swirling away from him while he stared at the woman before him. Enchanting and mesmerizing, but not magic, because she carried no price with her, only her heart freely given with no expectations demanded in return.
"I know you love me, Rumplestiltskin," she said. "Because you gave me a library even when you were saying goodbye. Because you let me go when I walk away. Because you take me back whenever I find you again. Because you told me about your son. Because—"
He would have let her continue for the sheer joy of hearing her voice, but he already knew that he loved her. He already knew that he needed her. He already knew all these things she was saying, and now that he knew she knew them, there were more important things to be doing than reiterating truths already known.
Her lips were soft and gentle (as they had been when breaking a curse), open and passionate (as they had been when reuniting lovers), assured and perfect (as they had been moments earlier, granting him forgiveness and absolution and acceptance). He kissed her, and it was right. It was perfect.
It was beauty.
Beside them, unseen and unnoticed, a glass bottle with a single strand of hair burst into flame and was obliterated.
"Kiss me again," he murmured into her mouth. "It's working."
And so she did.