Unsure if this was the best idea, especially when she was the one insisting on space while they got used to one another, she walked across the street toward his pawnshop. She had seen the light on from her window in her apartment and knew he was too fastidious to leave it on if he wasn't there. Knowing that he only did real magic, important magic, in his workroom she thought it might be safe to interrupt him.
It had been over a week since she'd seen Rumpelstiltskin and it was starting to drive her mad. She wondered how he was staying away. Either he was exerting an amazing amount of self-control or he didn't care about her as much as she thought. After everything they went through she knew he cared, he more than cared, so maybe she shouldn't think so much about this. Maybe she should be grateful he was trying so hard to honor her wish for him to stay away.
Getting to the front door she didn't see him and knocked loud enough for him to hear if he was in the back. There were a long few seconds where she didn't hear anything and began to question herself before the curtain moved aside. She saw his surprise and delight when he spotted her and she gave him a shy smile through the window. "Are you busy?" She asked, knowing he could either hear her with his magic or read her lips.
He shook his head and walked forward and opened the door. The bell rang overhead and she stepped in when he gave her room. "Belle." He said with real pleasure.
"I couldn't sleep." She told him honestly. "Do you mind if I visit with you?"
"I always want to see you." He said, keeping his voce nearly steady. He ushered her to the back. "Would you like tea?"
"Yes please." She answered, feeling herself relaxing with him beside her. He held the curtain to the side and she moved into the office. She saw he was re-beading a pretty necklace at his desk. He moved past her to his tea set and began to prepare them a drink. She sat down on the couch he had shoved into a corner and looked around, noting the small changes he had made since she'd been here last. "Why are you here so late?" She asked.
"It's hard for me to leave a project half done." He said, indicating the necklace.
"Yes, I noticed that about you." She said with a teasing smile.
His lip twitched up as he made her tea just the way she liked it. "Are you enjoying the library?"
"Very much." She replied. "It has some wonderful stories in it."
"It's fortunate you found a new library. I believe you read through most of mine."
"It would take me another lifetime to read through all the books you had there."
"Not with how fast you read." He replied as he set the tea to steep. "A few decades perhaps."
She smiled at him and he glanced at her over his shoulder, his eyes twinkling in amusement. Her smile faded a little. "I never did thank you, for getting me the key, and for the apartment. I should have."
"It was nothing, Belle." He said softly, closing the debate. "You deserve far more than that."
She knew better than to argue with him about what he believed she deserved. It would get her nowhere. Besides, if she were honest with herself she wasn't a good enough woman to dislike his mindset. It was nice, nice for someone to want to take care of her after all this time. At one time she thought she would have fought it, but neglect had left its mark on her no matter how she wanted to deny it. Pushing the thought aside she instead fixated on something that she had been wondering for a long time. "Can I ask you a question?"
"It seems so." He quipped, although she heard the underlying nervousness there.
"Why did you break our deal?"
Frowning, he half turned toward her. "What deal?"
"When you let me go." She clarified. Because, yes he had loved her, but he was still who he was. He didn't let things go, especially what he wanted. It wasn't in his nature and yet after a relatively short time in the grand scheme of things he had let her walk out with no real expectation to ever see her again. "I meant what I said. I meant forever."
"Yes, I know you did." He turned back to the tea.
"Then why did you break it, our deal?"
"Because even I'm not that cruel."
"I wish you wouldn't say things like that." She said softly. "You aren't cruel."
"Oh, yes, dearie I am." He said as the tea finished. Setting his cane over his arm he picked up the tray and brought it to her. He set it on the desk and handed her a cup, which she promptly set to the side as she stood up. He went still as she stopped in front of him. Reaching up she cupped his face and he simply stopped breathing.
"You aren't a bad man." She said softly.
He closed his eyes and reached up to put his hand over hers. "I am." He said softly. "I'm a monster. I've done terrible things. You won't listen to me about it."
"Rumpelstiltskin, I've seen your bad side." She whispered. "It's dark, but not evil."
He let out a slow breath and opened his eyes. "Belle…" She rubbed his cheek, waiting patiently. "I killed my wife." She went as still as he had only a moment ago as a block of ice suddenly formed in her stomach. "She left us, and after Bae was gone and I was changed, I found her by chance. I killed her."
"On purpose?" She asked, her voice choked.
"Yes." He answered. "And somewhere, in some world, her lover is searching for me. When he finds me he will try to kill me, and he'll kill you as well, if he thinks it'll hurt me."
She didn't know how to processes this. She hadn't come here to find more horrors, not when the ones from her own past were keeping her awake for days on end. She had stepped back from him before she realized what she had done and he made no attempt to stop her. "Why?" She demanded in a strained whisper.
She wasn't sure how he could keep looking her in the eye while he talked about this. "Because I am evil and she was cruel. Your father was right, Belle, I am a beast."
"What will you tell your son?" She asked, horrified.
"I won't." He said simply. "I won't tell him anything."
The ice was growing into her limbs. "You'll lie to him?"
For once he didn't bother to twist her words. "Yes. To spare him pain and keep him, I'll lie to him." He watched her watching him, his eyes flickering with something dark and, and sad. "And to keep you alive and away from Killian, I'll tell you the truth."
"You can't fix pain with more pain." She said, feeling helpless. She was trying to claw her way out of this darkness he had just hurled her into with no warning. She didn't know how to process this, how to view him now that she knew, how to forgive him or if it was even her place to do that. "You can't earn forgiveness with deceit. Why are you like this?" She wanted to shake him, and she was sure he would let her. "I thought you were changing. You said you would try."
"I am trying." He said brokenly. "For you I would do anything, but I have moved worlds and ripped apart time and space for my son. I have fallen into madness and darkness more than once. I won't risk loosing him again. I won't risk your life for past sins."
She felt as if she were ripping in two. Tears running down her face and she didn't know when that had started. All she knew was that this, what he was telling her, was the wrong thing. "If you can't risk that….If you can't tell him the truth then you won't ever be his father." His eyes turned dark. "You'll still be the same man he ran away from. You have to stop making wrong choices."
That hit a nerve. Snapping his hand out he flipped the tea tray off the desk. It hit the floor with a crash and she heard breaking ceramics and jumped at the noise. "I won't leave him again!" He snarled.
"No." She said softly. "You'll push him away instead."
"You will." She said, her heart breaking for him. "The same way you keep pushing me away. You think no one can love you so you push to keep the pain away." He gripped his cane. "Has the pain gone away yet?"
"Enough." He demanded, trying to ward her words away, although she knew even if she stopped now it was too late. This wouldn't leave him easily.
She wouldn't be swayed. "Has it?" He had to deal with this. "Has pushing ever worked?" She kept at it. "Is that why you told me about your wife just now? To get me to leave? To scare me so I won't come back now that I'm settled and can take care of myself?"
"It's what you wanted!" He shouted. "You wanted away from me!"
"I wanted to stop you from hurting me!" She threw back. He recoiled as if she had just shoved a hot poker into his chest. Guilt filled her at once and it was her turn to move toward him. She saw him trying to pull his mask of indifference up again and nearly begged. "Don't do that." She whispered as she got right in front of him. "I'm sorry." She really meant that. "I'm sorry, Rumpelstiltskin." She repeated as she set her hand over his chest. "I'm not brave enough to help you the way you need help right now." Confusion flickered in his eyes around the pain. "I was by myself in the dark too long. I'm sorry." She was trembling like mad. "I forgot how much hurt you had. I wasn't ready to help you. That's why I left. I'm sorry."
"Belle." His voice broke.
"Don't be mad." She whispered pleadingly. "The cup isn't the only thing chipped anymore." Faster than she could track he jerked her into him in a tight hug. Unable to stop shivering she pressed herself tightly against him and hid her face in his shoulder as she clutched at the lapels of jacket. "I'm sorry." She said again.
"Stop, Belle." He said, his voice quavering again. "You aren't the one that should be sorry."
"It wasn't your fault." She said, knowing what he was thinking. "Don't take any more hurt, Rumpelstiltskin. You have more than your share already." In reply he kissed her head. Unable to argue him out of this right now she leaned farther into him, wanting to reconnect with him, unable to think about what he had told her anymore right now. She was horrified, and had come here to feel safe. For her own sanity she pushed the ice away, pushed his past away. She needed him in the now. There was nothing she could do about things he did before they met, before she was born, centuries ago. "I keep waiting for you to take me for a hamburger." She told him.
He let out a strangled sort of laugh and buried his face in her hair. "I wasn't sure you meant that."
"I did." She told him. "I miss you."
A breath shuddered out of him. "You'd be the first."
She let go of his jacket so she could wrap her arms around his middle in a tight hug. One of his hands inched up to cradle the back of her head. They both fell quiet and stood there for a long time, until she stopped shivering and his breathing went from erratic to deep and even. As she leaned against him it occurred to her she must be hurting his leg but he didn't show any sign of it, or of wanting her to let go. Finally, after she didn't know how long, she mumbled into his chest. "Do you want to try the tea again?"
He nodded and kissed her temple, letting his hands slide away from her reluctantly. Wanting him to believe that she wanted to be here she tilted her head up and kissed him gently on his lips before leaving his personal space. The move had caught him off guard and he froze before he could react. By the time he caught himself she was sitting back on the couch and picking up her now very cold tea. She would deal with this new information later, when it wasn't so late and she wasn't so tired. When she wasn't in his presence and had a clear head.
He flicked his hand and the tea set that was still lying on the floor in pieces suddenly righted and repaired itself as it floated back up to the desk. She said nothing about that magic, knowing it would only start another fight and she wasn't emotionally prepared for that. Moving to her he took her cup from her and returned to the tray, fixing her a new cup. He handed it to her and sat down on the stool he used for spinning. He always seemed comfortable in it regardless of how uncomfortable it looked.
"Thank you." She said, trying to regain some normality after that.
He cleared his throat, clearly trying for the same thing. "It's only tea, dearie."
She smiled a little and his shoulders relaxed. "I never understood why you wanted all the sugar and milk and honey on the tray when you drink it plain."
"It looks more presentable." He replied with a shrug.
She sent him an amused look. "Why does it matter if it looks presentable?"
"Ah, appearance always matters."
"No, it doesn't." She said.
His eyes flicked up to her face as he absorbed her meaning. "You, my dear, are one of the few who doesn't believe that, or fall for the charms of the beautiful. You would be amazed what it means to other people. A properly cultivated image has as much power as magic."
She was amused despite herself. Reaching out she caught his tie and tugged at it gently. "I thought you just had a fondness for nice clothes."
"Aye." He said, letting her set the fabric askew, as if it didn't bother him terribly. She knew it did. He hated being rumpled, which she found amusing. Even as an imp he was meticulous about his clothing. Heaven forbid it be wrinkled or have a stitch loose. When he ripped his favorite dragon hide vest one day he had gone into a melodramatic tantrum that she would defy any toddler to outdo. "I do at that."
She smiled at him. "Have you always?"
Something flickered in his eyes. "For a long time I didn't have the option. Once I did I admit I indulged myself."
She was confused. "What?"
"I wasn't always a wealthy man." He said carefully, as if trying to step around the issue.
She watched him with interest. "You weren't?"
She admitted to some confusion. "I thought you always had magic?"
"Far from it, my love." He grimaced a little. "I was nothing put a poor spinner for a long time. I owned nothing but my wheel and a few rags. Half the time I couldn't afford food."
She cocked her head to the side, intrigued. "Why are you embarrassed?"
"It's not much to brag about is it?" He asked with a sigh before taking a sip of his tea. "Hardly something to entice a princess to my side."
She let out a little laugh. "I'm not a princess." She told him. "I never was. I was a lady."
He sent her a look. "To a spinner there's little difference. With the wealth your family had you might as well have been a princess." She let out a small, amazed snort of laughter. "You find that amusing?" He asked unhappily, thinking she was mocking his past.
"That you though we had money." She replied, correcting him. "Wealthy indeed."
He raised an eyebrow. "You offered me gold to save you village."
"We offered you Gaston's gold." She told him. "I told you it was an arranged marriage."
It was his turn to be confused. "What?"
"I had a title and no wealth, he had wealth and no title. We had been at war for over five years. Our coffers were dry and our people were either dead or starving. Gaston's father was a very successful merchant, but that wasn't enough for his son. Gaston wanted the one thing his father couldn't provide, status. I told my father to offer him my hand."
Rumpelstiltskin absorbed that. "You arraigned your own unwanted marriage?"
"My father never would have. He knew I didn't want Gaston." She felt the old resignation in her belly. "But what is it they say here? Desperate times call for desperate measures? Our people were going to die. I thought that would be all we needed to get your help." He was simply staring at her and she thought it only fair to tell him the rest. "The dress I was in when you came? It was my mother's wedding dress and the only thing I owned that actually fit properly. It was the only thing that I owned that looked new or like the lady I was. I wanted to make a good impression on you. I had heard you liked to play with royalty so I dressed myself up like a plaything." She wasn't ashamed of what she'd done. She wasn't ashamed she had used what she'd known to save her village and her father. "I was almost relieved when you took me with you. That first morning I was at the castle was the first solid meal I'd had in almost eight months." He seemed appalled. "The supply lines broke and there were children in the castle. I made sure they ate. The children and the soldiers needed to eat."
"Your father should have sent you somewhere safe." He said with quiet conviction.
"There was nowhere safe." She pointed out. "And no money to give anyone to smuggle me out even if there was. I wouldn't have left anyway." She watched him quietly. "I think living with you was the safest place I'd ever been." Her eyes danced suddenly as she flashed back to her first day in the kitchens. "Really, it was your larder that made me fall in love with you."
He snorted at that. "I'm not surprised. It was very impressive."
She giggled and he reached over and picked up a plate of cookies that suddenly appeared, offering them with a flourish. She grinned in delight and took one. "Why thank you."
He inclined his head. "My lady." She smiled as she took a bite of the cookie, delighted when she found they had some sort of wonderful brown chunks in them. She let out a hum of delight and looked at it with real interest, trying to work out what this was. "It's called a chocolate chip cookie." He said, answering her unspoken question.
She chewed and swallowed it quickly so she could ask a question. "Chocolate?"
His eyes glittered with sudden playfulness. "A delicacy in this world." He set the plate down and a puff of purple magic surrounded his hand for a moment. When it dissipated she saw he had a pretty foiled box in his hand. He took the lid off before she could read what was written on the top and she saw it was filled with different shaped brown candies that were cradled in pale colored, crinkled paper bowls. Curious, she leaned in and looked at them. After a moment he moved the box closer, a silent offer. Reaching out she picked a square with rounded corners out and took a bite.
She had never tasted anything so wonderful in her life. She thought her eyes may have rolled back in her head and he laughed, a real honest to goodness belly laugh, at her expression. When she finished the treat she couldn't help but ask. "Is there magic in it?" He couldn't think of any other way for something to taste so wonderful.
He laughed again. "No." He set the box in her lap. "It's made with a type of bean, milk, and sugar."
"This is amazing." She said.
He tickled her cheek with his nimble fingers and she picked up another of the treats as she pulled her legs up under her. "I'm glad you like them."
"I don't know who wouldn't like them." She said as she picked up another one.
Leaning in a little closer, he whispered in her ear conspiratorially. "The round ones have raspberries in them."
She dropped the square one she had back down at once. Raspberries had always been her favorite food. She loved summer if for no other reason than she could eat them until she got sick, which she had done more than once. One day Rumpelstiltskin had walked down to the kitchen when she was cooking dinner and found her raiding a large bowl of the small fruits. The dish was enchanted, and whenever the fruit ran out it refilled itself, from where she didn't know. She had been eating them for the better part of three hours, and somehow she knew he could tell the bowl had refilled itself about ten times in that span of time. After that she never walked into the kitchen without a full bowl of them waiting for her, regardless of the time of year it was.
Excited now, having not had raspberries in years, she took a bite out of the round one. Smiling like crazy at the flavor had his eyes twinkling in delight, happy that she was so very happy. When she finally swallowed, unable to savor it any longer without it dissolving in her mouth, she spoke. "Oh thank you."
He smiled wider. "I'm surprised you haven't had chocolate yet. It seems something Ruby would have made sure you tried."
"I keep getting hooked on the same thing for days. It seems all I want to eat anymore are eggs, and last week it was pancakes." It was one of the myriad of odd idiosyncrasies that kept cropping up now that she was out of that cell. She knew, on a logical level, that she could eat whatever she wanted when she wanted now. However, logic no longer seemed to be a very large motivating factor in her life anymore so she ate the same thing until she got sick of it in fear she would never get to taste it again. At one point in time she relied on that logic and straightforward thinking to help her survive in a chaotic world. She ran her father's household with it, and then later the Dark Castle with the same bull headed determination for order that she always had. It meant little or nothing to her that the place was full of erratic and often volatile magic. She had wrestled it into submission, all of it, even Rumpelstiltskin, at least until the last few horrible hours she had been there. Now it seemed after years of static routine that relied on order and logic she had no part in creating, it was her mind that had become chaotic. She shrugged and then made a face, conceding one point. "But nothing with peanuts."
"Why nothing with peanuts?"
"All they ever gave me was peanut butter sandwiches and some sort of watery green soup. I can't even stand the smell anymore. It makes me sick to my stomach."
Reaching over he plucked three candies out of the box and tossed them in the trashcan nearby. "You won't want those then." She appreciated that and smiled before picking out another one. She decided she also liked that he hadn't had a horrible reaction to her mentioning the asylum this time.
She simply kept talking, wanting that to be the new norm. "I don't think it helps that I'm always eating over at the inn either. I can't cook here. None of the machines work properly and I set that box thing on fire one night even though I read the instruction manual." She was annoyed with that, annoyed that she couldn't wrestle the thing into obedience.
She tried to recall the name of it. "The micro…micro…"
"Microwave." He supplied.
"Yes, that." She agreed as she ate another piece of candy.
"Would you like me to show you how everything works?" He asked.
She looked up at him. "Really?"
He watched her seriously. "If you'd like."
"Yes, please." He smiled a little again, as if he had been afraid she would lash out at him for that suggestion. "When did you learn to cook?"
"I had twenty-eight years to work it out." He replied. "I find it less unpleasant than I imagined. It's a bit like making potions."
"Hmmm." She replied playfully as she finished off a fourth chocolate. Thinking that was more than enough, because she suspected she would eat the whole box if she didn't set them aside, she put the lid back on and sat it on the table beside the tea. "You are rather good at it."
"Am I?" He asked in a pleased sort of way.
"You are." She said as she uncurled herself. She thought maybe she could sleep now. She felt settled. "Thank you for tea. I think I should leave before I fall asleep on this couch."
He took that gracefully, which she appreciated. He stood up with her the way that was customary from their world. "I'm glad you came." He said sincerely.
She smiled at him. "Me too." Taking his hand she squeezed it shyly. "Maybe we could go get hamburgers this weekend?"
"Yes." He agreed at once.
"I could meet you here? Saturday afternoon after I close the library?" She thought that would be enough time to process, enough time to forgive and think over what she'd learned tonight, because she was going to need to do that before she saw him again. She was going to need to understand how this fit, how to accept his past, one that appeared to be far darker and more complex than she had suspected.
"I'll be here." He said, walking her to the front door. Unlocking it he held it open for her and she hesitated in the doorway for a moment, unsure of how she should say goodbye. He settled it for her. Reaching up he ran his knuckles gently over her cheek. "Goodnight, Belle."
She smiled shyly at him again. "Goodnight, Rumpelstiltskin."
She indulged another second of him touching her before she slipped away. He watched her as she crossed the street and turned around a corner toward her apartment. Returning to her apartment that was over the library she unlocked the side door and walked up the inner steps quickly, hating the narrow space more than she could say. Unlocking the door quickly she stepped into the apartment, which was about as big as the rooms she'd had when she lived with her father so long ago, and slipped her shoes off. Leaning back against the door she let out a low sigh and wondered if she could really make it five days before she saw him again. She wondered what else there was about him she didn't know. She wondered how a man as hurt as he was could find a place in himself to love anyone, let alone her. Mostly she wondered if there was a reason Regina had put her in an insane asylum, because right now she felt anything but sane.