A/N: Many thanks go to Saime Joxxers for devoting a ton of time and effort into helping me with this story (and present tense)! Also thank you to everyone who reviews and follows and favorites me - definitely keeps me wanting to write and helps inspire me! :) This story is four chapters long, and I'll be posting Monday and Thursday evenings. Hope you enjoy, and please let me know what you think!
Disclaimer: Oh so many things referenced and used as inspiration for this story - they were written by others and don't belong to me. No copyright infringement is intended.
Dealing For Trust
He makes deals. That's what he does. It's who he is. He makes deals with the desperate, with the greedy, with the lost. Deals that promise better things so long as you're willing to pay the price. Deals that cannot be broken, and the deal you get is just as good as the deal you deserve.
So he makes a deal with himself. After all, he is desperate (desperate not to lose her again, desperate not to be hurt again). He is greedy (greedy for her voice saying his name and her smile breaking his heart and her touch banishing cold loneliness and her words reaching past curses and cruelty; greedy for her). He is lost (lost ever since she chipped his cup and laughed at his quips and didn't flinch from his touch and came back). He wants something better (her, her without that twist of guilt and foreboding constantly twisting his insides in a vise because he knows it cannot last). He is even willing to pay the price (because what he stands to gain is great enough to propel him past his fear).
He makes the deal, and even though he does not speak it aloud, he will not break it. If he keeps it, he will see just how good a deal he deserves (and maybe even deserve what he might gain). He will see if honesty and change are enough to make him worthy of her.
It isn't an easy deal. If it were, it wouldn't be worth making. The willingness to sacrifice is what makes a deal precious (he knows this above all). It isn't easy, but it is worth it.
She is worth it.
"Hello, Rumplestiltskin," she says. He knew she would be here (of course he did; he knows her routine, her schedule, down to the average amount of time she spends over her iced tea laughing with the wolf-girl, and if that's wrong, he doesn't care). He knew she would be here, but it is still a shock to feel her attention so steadfast on him.
"Belle," he says, and it is pleasant to be able to say her name even if he no longer has the right to add 'darling' or 'dear' to it. His cane is useful in situations like this, giving him a place to set his hands, an excuse to shift his weight.
"How are you?" she asks, her hands loose at her sides. She is not quite casual, not quite nervous, but she is making no move to leave either, so Rumplestiltskin doesn't despair.
"I'm well," he replies, not quite a lie. He has not seen her since he cut his losses (since he bandaged the wound composed of stark terror and damaging pain that had stabbed so deeply at the knowledge of town lines and overzealous fathers and dark caves too much like a certain underground prison). He has not seen her, but now she is here, and he does not want to leave. He relishes the exquisite pain she (her presence, her attention, her nearness, her distance) inflicts. So he searches for something to say, finds it in the likeliest of places. "How's the library? Is it sufficient? Do you need any—"
"It's wonderful!" She beams, radiant and beautiful. Her smile is happy and sweet, but it is not the smile he outlined in his self-made deal, so he is safe. "There are so many books, and I haven't read any of them. Well…I have now, but I hadn't before. Princess Abigail and Ruby have been helping me clean it all up to open it." She hesitates, which is a shame. He's been enjoying watching her speak on something with passion, enjoying pretending it was him she spoke of so fondly. "Ruby said something about…library cards? She says the computer usually has a system for tracking who takes what book." She gazes up at him, shy and slow, the left corner of her mouth tucked inward as it always is when she is choosing her words carefully.
"Yes," he says, to prompt her into speaking again. "There should be a database you can set up."
"Well, I know so little about these computers…" She trails off, watches him. She is not nervous, but she is tentative, waiting for something. He wishes he knew the steps to this dance, wishes he were not crippled in this game of love and cautious flirtation. "Still," she continues when he is silent, "I do need one in order to open the library."
And now, finally, he catches on. He is surprised, because this is not hamburgers in a crowded restaurant; this is not speaking on the sidewalk in broad daylight. This is an invitation to her library where it will be only her and him. Only them.
He is surprised, but he is quick to take advantage.
"Oh. I could set it up for you. If you'd like." No bold words and self-assured statements here (never around her). Only quiet hope he doesn't know whether to conceal from her or allow to show. He has spent too many long centuries manipulating others to know, now, how many of his own emotions and reactions and words are genuine and how many contrived.
Her smile (the smile) is quick and happy, stunning him so that he has to readjust his weight again, has to lean heavily on his cane. "I'd like that. Thank you."
"When shall I come by?" he asks, because it's important she know that she can make decisions, that he is not her master anymore. He thinks she knows already, but it cannot hurt to give reminders. He does not offer to go with her now; he wants to ration her presence, her attention, her smiles. He wants them to last.
"Anytime," she says without even a flicker on her lovely, changing features to say that she is wary of seeing him too often. "I'm almost always there."
"I know," he admits quietly. A secret, as he had promised. After all, she had smiled at him—a happy, pleased, inviting smile that put sparkles in her eyes to scatter outward at her willing direction and lodge in his flesh. She once kissed him thinking she would win a knight in shining armor; maybe she has grown tired of waiting and has decided to make his armor shine for him, giving of her own beauty and goodness to accomplish it.
"I'll stop by tomorrow afternoon, then," he says hoarsely, and shifts his grip on his cane (pretending he is strong enough to walk away from her again; pretending it will be him and not her who walks away).
"All right." She waits again, and she is looking up at him, standing just a bit closer than propriety might dictate, but not too close, and he still remembers her hand pushing him away the last time he drew too near. So he only looks back at her, and he does not move, and all his words are wrong for this moment so he says nothing at all.
Finally she nods with a small smile (he hopes it is not a disappointed smile, but then, he knows how inept at all this he really is, so he supposes it probably is). "Well," she straightens, moves away, "I'll see you tomorrow."
Fear moves like acid inside him (because what if she says no?), but she is walking away (again, always, always leaving), and she already invited him (he thinks he did not imagine it), so now it is his turn. He's not the one who left, but he is the one who locked her out, and maybe she needs a reminder that he cannot do that again. (Maybe she needs to know that he is not strong enough to do it again.)
"Belle," he calls. There is a thread of fear in his voice, and he sounds like a man who never found a cursed knife, a man he tries so hard to leave behind and yet always ends up dragging everywhere with him.
She looks over her shoulder, and she is almost but not quite smiling.
"Have you…tried a hamburger yet?" he asks.
She turns and faces him fully, eyes so blue and wide and hopeful. "No. I was waiting."
His stomach clenches tight because he is afraid she is waiting for a man who doesn't exist, afraid she is expecting a prince to emerge from his shell any day to reward her for her patience and kindness, and how is she to know that there is no prince, no knight, no hero? Only a lame spinner whose cowardice lost him everything, who was never worthy of being loved, even without a dark curse and the sins of hubris and arrogance and carelessness.
He is afraid, but more afraid of losing her, so he opens his mouth and says, "Would you like to try one tomorrow evening? With me?"
And there is that smile again, the one she gives only to him, the one that makes it hard to breathe and impossible to stop feeling and strikes hope and terror all at once into his heart. A sparkling smile that curves her lips upward and just barely shows her teeth, that etches dimples into her cheeks, that sets stars afire in striking blue eyes.
"I'd love to," she says, and she means it (proof that miracles are possible even in this dull, gray world). "I've been hoping you would ask."
"I was afraid you'd say no," he confesses. The truth is scalding in his mouth, and he wants to look away, but a deal is a deal. "Now that everyone's had a chance to fill you in on all the reasons you should revile me."
She frowns, and this is why he doesn't tell these truths, why he instead keeps them buried in the deep and dark. He hates that he replaced her smile (his smile) with a frown. "What they say doesn't matter," she says firmly, and he thinks that she is trying to convince them both. "Do you want to eat hamburgers with me?"
"Yes," he says (a thousand yeses fill his mouth, a million hopes flood his mind, a single desire burns in his soul).
"Then so do I." She smiles, but thankfully this is a different smile, a kind, pleased smile. "I'll be waiting for you, tomorrow, at the library."
He flinches at the word waiting (always waiting, in vain, in disappointment, in hurt, for something that's never been and will never be), but he offers his own smile anyway. "I'll be there."
"Good day, Rumplestiltskin." Another smile, beautiful and sweet, but fortunately not the one that sparkles. He is relieved, no matter how he longs for those private smiles. Relieved because two secrets in one conversation is more than enough.
He wonders how many smiles (if any) she will give him tomorrow, how many secrets he will have to share. He hopes there will not be too many. A deal is a deal, but truth is painful.
And yet that's the deal he made: a secret shared for every special smile she gives him.
A high price indeed (the highest he has ever paid, save for his son, which was not the price of anything, only the cost of breaking a deal), but he thinks it will be worth it. Because either she will leave him after she hears too many ugly, monstrous truths (but only after he has weeks or months more of precious memories to store up and savor), or she will find the truth easier to swallow in slow, small steps and will gradually come to accept that this is who he is, that he will not miraculously transform. Either way, he will get to have her with him for a while longer, and that is the best he can ever hope for and more than enough to warrant making such a deal, unwise though it is.
After all, no one knows better than he just how much magic can offer…and how much it can take away.
But she is Belle, and so he made the deal anyway, and he is Rumplestiltskin, so he will keep it no matter how painful it is.
He should be tired when he next sees her, as he has spent every spare moment since they parted learning how to use computers and set up the database she needs. He should be tired, but she smiles with amusement when she opens the door at his knock, and she is not nervous at all as she teases him for not coming right in, and she touches his arm when she shows him the computer, so he is not. He is alive and breathless and full of hope he tries desperately to extinguish before it can be disappointed.
"You sure you know how to do all this?" she asks with a mystified glance to the keyboard.
"Oh, yes," he says, and because he was up all night studying, he is not even lying.
"I'll leave you to it then," she says.
He wants to protest; he says nothing, just turns his fragmented attention to the computer. He cannot give her what she wants, but he can give her what she needs, and for now, that is enough.
Still, he is grateful when she moves only as far as a nearby bookshelf, close enough for him to steal quick, furtive glances of her while she pretends to be checking each book for damage (he knows that she is really searching for the perfect one to read). For a while, in the companionable silence, he can imagine they are back in the Dark Castle, that he is spinning while she daydreams and pretends to clean.
But her time in the Dark Castle ended in dashed hopes and lies-that-weren't and another sacrifice for Bae's sake. And in that world, so far from his son and so dependent on his magic, he does not think it ever could have ended any other way.
But in this world, where curses cannot be broken with a kiss, where Bae is oh so tantalizingly close…in this world, maybe there can be a different outcome. (A long shot, he knows, and he stubbornly, defensively resists calculating the odds.)
When he finishes, he calls Belle over (delighted when she comes without hesitation and stands right next to him), and he shows her what he has done. For once, he wishes she were not such a quick study, if only to have excuse to come later and show her again. He knows she wants sunlight and people and public walks and openness, but he is a creature of darkness and much prefers to stay in quiet, shadowed places where no one can see them and hurt them and laugh and tear her away to cause him pain.
He likes having her all to himself, where no one but him can see her or touch her. That is not a good thing, he thinks, and is sure that Charming and Thomas and Frederick and all the other cookie-cutter princes have never imagined stealing their wives away to quiet, safe solitude. It is a flaw in himself, and maybe he will confess it to her at her next smile. But even if he does, he does not think that will expunge it from him. He will ever and always be covetous of her every look and laugh and word.
When they finish with the computer, he is silent, tongue-tied, not sure how to ask her if she has changed her mind about dinner (about him).
"Would you like to see what I've done with the place?" Belle invites him, and he is thankful for the reprieve.
He follows her through winding shelves and past cozy nooks, around chairs and back behind the circulation desk where she has stashed her own reading material. It is the first time he has seen a place of her own, something she alone possesses (her room in the Dark Castle, her room in Mr. Gold's house, they don't count, he thinks), and he is awed and humbled that she has brought him here so quickly. Here, into her home.
Here. Without him.
As always, the joy she gives him is edged with the poison of doubt. Sometimes—and maybe this is the secret he will never tell her—he wonders if it wouldn't be best for them to part ways, to admit that nothing good can come of something that hurts so much, to say goodbye and let the wounds they inflict on one another begin to slowly (impossibly) fade.
But then she spins to look up at him and she takes his hand and she says, "Dinner, then?" and he (yet again, always, every time) dismisses the bleak thought. Her presence, his love for her, is painful, but it is beautiful, too, and he has so little beauty in his life that this is a mark of grace he is too weak (too desperate, too needy, too strong; maybe too much of all of those things) to turn away.
So he smiles back and nods and opens the door for her.
They walk to Granny's, and they are both quiet. He would be afraid this was already failing even before it had begun, but her hand is warm and soft in his, so he is content.
He goes tense and rigid when they enter Granny's, only long practice allowing him to retain his pretense of polite indifference. The eyes of everyone inside are like weights hurled at him, and he shifts just a bit to interpose his body between their incredulousness and Belle. They are silent now, but soon their whispers will come to life, soon their suspicious eyes will cut like blades.
He hates this. Hates people looking at him, judging and condemning. Hates holding Belle's hand in the open, exposing this chink in his armor so blatantly. Hates smiling at Belle, knowing they will all raise their brows and wonder and whisper behind his back.
He hates it, but it is what Belle wants, so he keeps hold of her hand and leads her to a corner table and smiles, a pale, small smile that nonetheless leaves him drained from the effort of making it.
"Do you want to look at the menu?" he asks (an inane question, but it is all he can think to say).
"I don't think so." She smiles at him, her changeable features alight with her happiness and her hope, and he can practically hear their audience wondering what spell he has cast over her to make her look at him, the Dark One, that way. And what if they, too, decide to rid her of the spell? They will take her away like her father did and he won't know she is gone because she is not with him anymore and when next he sees her, she will either be dead or cursed or—
"Thank you, Rumplestiltskin." Her voice cuts through his degenerating fears, casts a smothering blanket over them. "I know…I know this isn't—isn't really your thing. But thank you for coming. Thank you for trying."
"No matter." An old phrase from an old day in an old world (but he is an old creature, so it suits).
"It matters," Belle says softly, placing her hand on his, so light and delicate and fragile. And she is giving him that smile, his smile, and later there will be the price to pay for that, but for now, he simply soaks it in and lets a little of his tension seep away. Because Belle is brave and strong and good, and he can pretend that nothing can hurt her or take her away from him (can lie to himself even though he doesn't lie to others).
He cannot forget that they are being surreptitiously watched, that Ruby eyes them with that reassessing stare she's had around him ever since he revealed that the sweater was his. He cannot forget, but he can focus on Belle and pretend to ignore everything else. After all these years, he is very good at pretending.
Still, despite Belle's pleasure with the hamburgers and delight with the iced tea and excitement when he asks her about the books she's read, he is happy when they stand to leave, even happier when the glass door closes between them and their audience, a shield against the assault of noise and stares and suspicion. He has no doubt that they begin to whisper again, but he is equally as certain that a reminder they all still live in homes he owns and that loan payments are still due will keep them from thinking he is weak or vulnerable.
Belle loops her arm through his as they slowly walk back toward the library. The sky is dark now and they are the only ones out. He has not forgotten that he still owes her a secret for her last smile, and now that no one can overhear them, he has no more excuse to delay (no excuse, only the desire to).
He knows which secret he needs to tell. There are other, less harmful (only by a matter of degree; only in comparison) secrets, but this is the one that matters most. The one that will send her away the fastest. She will look at him and her happiness will turn to horror and then to betrayal and then to revulsion, and he does not know which one will be the most painful, but he knows they will all hurt.
But this is the deal, and he will not break it.
This is the secret he will tell, and this one time he will not be a coward.
"Belle," he says, and she hums acknowledgement, still looking around at all the sights surrounding them. He loves how new and wonderful everything is to her, loves that he can see things differently when she does. "There's something I have to tell you."
"Okay." She straightens and does not look at him (he is torn between disappointment and relief). But her voice is calm, if somber, and she keeps her hand on his arm.
"I made the curse that brought us here," he says (though she already knows this; another slight delay). "I sold it to Regina, knowing she would cast it."
"For Baelfire," Belle says, glancing up at him through dark lashes. The sound of his son's name after all these years (after all the dark nights fearing that he conjured him up out of madness and guilt) is like a physical blow. The realization that she is justifying all his crimes in the name of his son (just as he does) is like cold water dashed in his face.
Of course, he thinks with a sinking heart. She gave him hope and another chance, but only after he told her about Bae.
She is still waiting for a white knight, a blameless hero, still waiting for him to turn into someone better, and why did he ever let himself believe otherwise, believe that she could love him for him (when him as he is is so inherently, inarguably unlovable)?
But she is also, he reminds himself in a desperate attempt to avoid this new, old pain, still waiting for his secret.
"Yes," he says, a single word to cover all the crimes he's committed for all their petty and impatient reasons. "But I did more than sell it to Regina. I…made her, manipulated her all her life to make certain she would cast it. She made her own choices, as do we all, but I pushed her into them to ensure that her heart would be black enough to fit the curse's requirements. So you see," he cannot even see her past his fear and apprehension, so thick and suffocating that lights and shadows swim in his vision, "I'm the one who pushed Regina toward the evil great enough to allow her to capture you and lock you away in the hopes of using you against me. That's why I was so angry, earlier, when you said it was her who kept you prisoner. I blamed her, but…it's my fault."
Somewhere during that speech, they'd come to a halt, the library just ahead of them. He is glad, for her sake, that they are so close to her refuge; she won't have to run quite so far to escape the sight of him.
Only…only she isn't letting go of his arm. And she is looking up at him (he can feel the heat and weight of those piercing, insightful eyes). He wants to be brave and meet her gaze, but he does not want to see horror and disappointment and fear on her beautiful features, so he looks around at anything (nothing) else.
She is silent a long moment. He doesn't breathe for a long moment. He has his cane, but it is her hand on his elbow that truly keeps him upright.
"Why are you telling me this?" she finally asks.
She hasn't smiled at him again (maybe never will) and he has told his secret (paid his price), so he does not say that he is testing her, throwing his worst secret out there so that if she leaves, it will be quickly and it won't hurt quite as much to lose her again when she tells him she never wants to see him. (He can't say that anyway because that would be a lie.) He does not say that he wants to prove to her that honesty is not a good thing, wants her to know that of all the things she could have asked of him, his secrets are the most foolish of requests. He does not say that he cannot stand to have her always waiting, waiting, for him to be better than he's ever been.
"It's the truth," is all he says, and he is being honest even if it's only a half-truth, a clever evasion. He only wishes his voice wasn't a whisper, wishes his mouth were not so dry, wishes this doesn't feel as inevitable as marching against the ogres so long ago.
"Look at me, Rumplestiltskin," she says, and she might as well be holding his knife for all that he can disobey.
He tenses as he looks at her, already flinching away from what he knows he will see.
But he does not see it.
It isn't there.
His breath rushes from him in a soft sigh that rounds his shoulders, and he cannot look away from her now. She does not look happy, and she is not smiling, but she is not running from him either, and that is more than he had dared to dream.
"I'm sorry," he whispers miserably, and now she does smile, a sad smile that makes it look as if she is about to cry. Another terrible truth turning warmth into cheerlessness—this was a terrible deal.
"I know you've done bad things, Rumplestiltskin," she tells him (he flinches from that truth in her voice, tries to look away, can't). "And I know you make deals with desperate people. I can't say I find it too surprising that you sometimes make them desperate before coming to them with your deal."
He is sure she can see his tears, but she is different (she is Belle) so he does not care if she sees him weak and vulnerable (he does care, but he can't, not when she asked this of him). Does not care because she's the only one who's ever proven trustworthy with his secrets and truths.
"But like you said," she continues softly, "she made her own choices, chose her own fate. We all do, and it's up to us whether we choose to link our fate with yours. Like I did."
His hand shakes, as it always does, when he reaches up to touch her face. He can't help himself; it's an automatic reaction. He needs to make sure she is real.
She gives him a watery smile, and lets her hand drop from his arm when he retracts his hand. "Thank you for dinner," she says quietly as her eyes fall away from his.
"Belle," he begins uncertainly, but he does not know what else to say. He is frozen and trembling and falling (so far, so fast, and if she does not catch him, he will not survive hitting the bottom of this abyss).
"Good night, Rumplestiltskin."
He does not follow as she walks the few steps to the library door. He wants to run after her, wants to catch her, stop her, kiss her. He wants to transform into the perfect prince she wants and deserves.
But he is lame and slow and inept and clumsy. He is cursed and cowardly and his hands are black with blood and never in his life has he been worthy of anything good.
So he stands there and watches her leave.
She opens the library door. Steps inside. Turns to close it between them. Pauses. Then she looks up, grants him a vision of blue and silver and the slightest hint of the memory of a smile.
"I'll see you later," she whispers, and the door closes (opens, really, by virtue of her forgiveness).
He had known kisses couldn't break curses in this world. He hadn't known that, instead, four words could mend a shattering heart.