A/N: Thanks to everyone who's supported and followed and reviewed this story! (And to Hermitess, thanks for the reviews, and yes, I definitely do think they're Wheel of Time fans; and really, who wouldn't be?) It's wonderfully inspiring and encouraging to know what you think of different parts of the story, the characters, and the story as a whole, so thank you so much to all who have given feedback in some form or another. And another big thank you to Saime Joxxers for being such a great beta and cheerleading this fic for me, as well as correcting my present tense! :) Hope you all enjoy the end - please let me know what you think!
Disclaimer: No copyright infringement is intended - just a tribute to this wonderful show and everyone associated with making it!
She starts coming to his house and dropping by the shop, to tell him good morning, to loan him a book she just finished, to ask him about something to do with the library computer, to bring him dinner. She has a litany of excuses, and he would give her more if he could. Her presence, so vibrant and light and good, makes everything better, eases the hot frustration within him at his inability to figure out a way across the town line, numbs the fear that ghosts from their old world are coming back to haunt him. She makes him better. He is happy, and he treasures that, savors it, smiles when he sees her, and realizes, one day, that it has been days since he has even thought of waiting for her to smile before telling her the truth residing inside his awakening heart.
If this is change, he thinks, it is not as bad as he always feared. It is slow and sweet and unexpected (so much easier than it has ever been before), and he wonders if maybe True Love's Kiss works better here than he'd thought. Except it had been scary and debilitating and stunning last time, so maybe this isn't True Love's Kiss. Maybe it's just Belle.
She comes to his house one night, after dusk, and waltzes into the basement with no more than a quick knock. He watches her flit toward him, lets her take his hand and lead him outside, and smirks bemusedly at the blanket she has spread out in the backyard between the rosebush and the lilacs.
"Stargazing," she proclaims happily. "You work too hard, Rumplestiltskin. Sometimes I don't even think you sleep."
"And stargazing is the solution?" he teases without telling her that many nights he doesn't sleep, that he stays in his basement and tries and tries and tries to find a way to his son. He is learning the difference between truths she needs to know and truths that don't matter so much, and he is relatively certain this is one of the latter.
"You never know, right?" She smiles at him, all mischief and fondness and pleasure, and he kisses her because it seems the right thing to do (the only thing to do).
When he maneuvers himself to the ground, lying back on the blanket, Belle arranges herself right next to him, touching him from shoulder to foot (so much touch all at once that it threatens to overwhelm him). The sky above is clear and ebony, the stars shining brightly in an effort to outshine the glow in Belle's eyes (they fail).
After a bit, he feels himself relax, tension bleeding out of him, and he takes what feels like his first breath all day. "Thank you," he says softly.
"You're welcome," she replies, and then she rolls to her side and rests her head on his chest. Surprise makes him want to go tense again, but she drapes an arm over his stomach and burrows into him, and instead of tensing, he feels himself relax into her embrace.
"I thought we were supposed to be watching the stars," he says, looping an arm around her so she can't move.
"I've seen stars before," she says, laughter in her voice. "You're the one who likes looking at them. I have better things to look at."
He stills at the words, even more so when she tilts her head and places a quick kiss on his neck, his jaw, his cheek.
"Much better things," she whispers (a smile in her voice), and then she lays her head down on his chest again and tucks herself closer to him (warm and willing and wonderful), and he cannot see the stars through the haze of disbelieving happiness coating the world in a golden sheen (but he does not need the stars when he has her).
He wonders if she will ever stop surprising him.
He hopes she does not.
He is more surprised at the invitation than he is at her hand reaching out to intertwine their fingers and tug him forward. His mouth opens but no words emerge, no answer to her sweet welcome, no response to the pleasure and tentative hope resting so apparent in crystalline blue. Her hand and her invitation and her smile, it all combines to throw him more off-balance than he has been since he turned from bottled True Love to behold his own, resurrected; since he stood at a tower window and watched a road that wasn't as empty as it should have been.
"Come up," she repeats with another tug at his hand. "I have tea. And dinner."
"If you like," he hears himself saying, and he knows it is a mistake, knows it will only (can only) end badly, but he can no more stop himself from following her back past shadowed bookshelves and up a hidden staircase to her apartment than he can leave Storybrooke with his memories intact. She keeps his hand firmly in hers, as if she knows that he needs that pressure to ground him (to assure him he is not just dreaming yet again). Or perhaps it is to steady herself because he belatedly realizes, when she pulls a key from her pocket to unlock her apartment door, that her hands are shaking even more than his.
"I don't have to come in," he tells her. He is a monster, but he has already hurt her far more than a man ever could have, so perhaps it is all right for him to spare her further pain at his hands.
"I want you to," she states with conviction, and then she swings open her door, pockets her keys, and draws him forward. Into her home. Her sanctuary. The one place he has never been.
"I would never guess you lived here," he says dryly at the sight of migrating library books stacked up on every available surface, and he is rewarded by her laugh and the slight loosening of the tight line of her shoulders.
"I have a lot to catch up on," she says simply. Her eyes are soft on his, and he is Mr. Gold so he can recognize an implied message when he hears one. She knows he has been telling her his secrets, giving them to her for safekeeping (how could she not know after all his confessions in their time together, so uncharacteristic and terrifying?), and he wonders if she thinks that she knows all his darkest secrets now. He wishes he were running out of dark secrets to give her, wishes he could take her smiles without worry anymore, knowing that he had paid all he needed for them. But wishes are never free, he knows that, and that one would cost him more even than a transplanted world.
She steps into the small kitchen to get their tea, and he is left standing awkwardly near the door. He is afraid to move farther inside, afraid to frighten or crowd her. She is already nervous and clumsy and uncertain, but she keeps up a running stream of chatter directed to him, so he allows himself to stay.
"I don't have sandwiches, but then, I'm getting a bit tired of them," she says, sticking her head into a cupboard so that her voice is muffled. "But I have soup."
"Soup?" He manages a quirk of his lips when she glances at him. "The kind you made in the Dark Castle?"
She ducks her head and huffs out a quiet laugh. "No. It's from a can."
"Pity," he remarks, but smiles again when she looks up to gauge his sincerity. "But it will have to do."
"Well, you don't have to eat," she says, but she is laughing, and so he feels no more than a flicker of fear that she wants him to leave.
He pretends to be reading the titles of the books nearest him as she opens the cans and starts the soup and the tea water warming on the stove. The pretense takes so much concentration that he is startled when Belle appears in front of him and pulls at his sleeve. "Come in," she says softly, tempting him. "It's all right."
"I don't…" he begins, but trails off, because how can he finish that? I don't want to frighten you (when he has already shouted at her and shut her out). I don't want to do something wrong (when he has done more wrong and been given more chances than anyone has a right to deserve). I don't know what you want of me (the truth, but one that might be more painful than it is worth).
"You can't eat standing in front of the door," she points out practically, and with such meager excuse, he allows himself to be guided into her sanctuary, compromising her safety (because she was supposed to be safe here but now she has invited the beast in with her).
He barely tastes the soup, despite his compliments, and he balances his teacup delicately on his knee (they sit on the couch, side by side, because she hasn't found a table and chairs yet, something he will remedy for her), desperate not to drop it and leave her with a chipped cup to obsess over when she sends him away (as he deserves). He is lost in a haze, his attention fixed on the woman at his side, the curve of her cheek, the line of her shoulders, the tilt of her head, the fall of her curls, the flutter of her hands, the frequent direction of her own gaze toward him.
"I don't think I ever thanked you for this—the library and the apartment, the books, all of it," Belle says, almost contemplatively, as she takes his empty cup from him and sets it on a small box doubling as an end table.
"No need," he says quickly (determined that she not feel any sort of gratitude to him, not when he was only redressing the balance and settling his debts). "The library's always been yours, Belle. It's why it was closed until you came."
"Rumplestiltskin…" Stars are glittering in her eyes, and this is a bad idea, he knows, because they are alone and the door is closed and she had locked it behind them and it is late and he is greedy and desperate for touch, for acceptance, for love, but she needs time, needs distance, needs someone good.
"I should go," he says. He stands, so shaky even his cane almost can't keep him upright. He starts to turn, starts to take a step to the door, but she catches his hand in hers and he is struck immobile.
"Don't go, please."
"Belle," he says, and there is a helpless note of longing in his voice as he looks down at her (because he wants this so badly, but more than that, he wants her to be well and happy). "You know no good will come of this."
"Do I?" she whispers. She is tugging insistently, gently, on his hand, and he finds himself sitting beside her. His cane drops from limp fingers.
"You know what I've done," he reminds her. He cannot figure out why he is breathless. "You know what I am. That's not going to change, Belle, no matter how many times you kiss me."
Her grin is quick and mischievous and so enchanting that he almost forgets entirely his resolve to not be weak and deceptive. "You never know," she teases, and she leans into him and kisses him. If she had done it a moment earlier, he would have succumbed, would have let her gentle and tame him with her touch and her lips and her head nestled against his shoulder as they talked long into the night.
But her words, her kiss, even her grin, all of it makes him go cold and numb and still. He feels her kiss as if it is a kiss she gives to a stranger (and so it is because even after all the secrets he's given her, she still doesn't know who he really is beneath it all).
"Rumplestiltskin?" She is puzzled and surprised and maybe a bit hurt as she pulls away from him, studies him so intently.
Before he knows what he is going to do, he lifts his hands and sets them on her shoulders and gently pushes her back. His voice is hollow (broken). "This is me, Belle. This is who I am. I'm not going to change, I'm not going to turn into a handsome prince, I'm not going to suddenly have hands washed clean of the blood I've shed."
"I know that," she insists, and there is a trace of impatience clouding the clarity of her eyes. Waiting. Waiting and impatient because nothing is happening.
He feels his own impatience and frustration start to build up inside him. "Do you know what I would have turned into if I'd let you kiss me, there by the spinning wheel?" he asks her bluntly. Something is screaming at him to stop, to evade, to misdirect, because this is the one secret he has never even contemplated telling her. But he won't (can't) stop. She deserves better, and if all his sins cannot convince her of that, then the truth will have to do (because he is so terribly tired of waiting for the inevitable disappointment when she figures out this truth on her own). "I would have turned into an ordinary man—a less than ordinary man. A cripple, a poor spinner with a lame leg, too afraid to speak without stuttering. A coward who flinched away from every touch and groveled before soldiers and scrounged in dirt to make enough of a living that my boy could eat one meal a day. That's who I am, Belle, underneath it all, and I don't…you can't love me."
He wonders if that pitiful, weak voice is his. He wonders if it is what a broken heart sounds like (but then, he already knows what that sounds like, has heard it a million times in the silence of the space around him, the absence of her breath and her heartbeat, the absence of her from his house, the utter absence of Bae; a broken heart sounds like absolutely nothing).
"Can't I?" Belle whispers.
"Belle," he tries (hoping, hoping, she will surprise him as she always has before; knowing that it is useless to hope when there is so little reason to).
"Rumplestiltskin," she counters, and her hand is sliding across his chest, her other curling around his neck, turning him to her, and his hands are on her before he can stop them. "I know who you are," she murmurs (he is hypnotized, watching her face draw closer and closer, her eyes so intent, her lips so distracting). "You're Rumplestiltskin—Dark One and spinner and father and deal-maker and True Love. I loved you when you were my master in a dark castle. I loved you when you were a savior letting me go free. I loved you when you were the Dark One, sending me away and calling down wraiths to wreak vengeance you'd promised you wouldn't. I loved you when you were a stranger who wept when you saw me and trembled when you hugged me. I loved you when you were good and selfless, giving me a library and telling me goodbye. And I love you now, when you're an extraordinary man who has deluded himself into thinking he is unworthy of anything good. I love you, Rumplestiltskin—do you love me?"
He is so astounded by her words, by her touch, by her nearness, that it takes him a moment to realize that she ended with a question. Too long, for she's drawing back, her eyes widening, mouth blanching, hands falling away, stricken and afraid (his brave Belle afraid). And that…that is not acceptable.
"Oh, yes," he murmurs fervently. He threads his fingers through her hair (threads his fate irrevocably with hers), leans forward to meet her (draws her toward him), and kisses her, once, twice, again, again. "How could I not love you?" he asks between kisses that seem to grow longer with each meeting of urgent, desperate lips. "You're light and beauty and goodness and…everything. Of course I love you."
She's somehow ended up beneath him on the sofa, and when she draws back just far enough to look him in the eyes, her hair spread in a shimmering puddle that halos her face, her hands buried in his hair, he does not think she has ever been more beautiful. "But what if I'm not all those things? What if I'm…what if I'm ordinary and unworthy?"
He frowns down at her, cups her face and rubs a thumb gently over her cheekbone. "Never!" he says fiercely.
Her smile is delighted. "Now ask me."
He doesn't want to, because he knows what she is doing, but she is stroking her hands through his hair and she is smiling and she did not look at him in disgust or dull disappointment when he told her there was no prince beneath his shell. So he complies and echoes her: "What if I'm ordinary and unworthy?"
"Never!" she says as fiercely as he had, then she smiles her triumph, and he would tell her that there is very little to compare between them, but she pulls him back down to her and kisses him, and he decides that there is no point.
After all, he is who he is and he never turns away a good deal, and Belle…Belle is the best deal he's ever made.
So he lets her kisses erase cruel taunts and beatings and grovelings and loneliness, lets her touch soothe old hurts and bloodless wounds and raw scars, lets her love fill up all the empty and aching places inside of him.
And when their kisses turn to an embrace and she snuggles into his side, curled so close she is almost in his lap, her hair tickling his chin, he looks into his future and he sees her there.
If there is one thing he is good at, it is presentation. He knows how to make something look good, appear desirable, sound so tempting it cannot be passed up. This is not the same as presenting one of his countless deals, not at all, but it is similar and pretending it is less important than it truly is helps him ignore the fear gnawing away at his insides (trying to dissuade him from this terrible, wonderful plan).
He plans the whole thing out carefully. He places the special object in its cushioned resting place within a small box, wraps it in paper, places a ribbon (blue and gold because that is what she wore when she gave herself to him forever) around the box, and then carries it with him.
The setting is important, of course, and it takes him several days to decide upon the best place in which to present it. Eventually, though, he decides that it is best to give it to her in her apartment, her home, to prove that the choice is hers.
They've abandoned sandwiches in favor of anything that catches her eye or intrigues her (and there are so many things that do that), so he brings a box of pizza with him to surprise her after she closes the library. He is briefly afraid that she will not let him in, but she smiles with delight when she sees him and swings open the door without hesitation and his remaining doubts disappear.
She knows he has something planned. That is part of the presentation, to incite curiosity and perk her interest (a wise showman knows to pick a willing audience), and it works admirably well. The pizza is only half-eaten, their iced tea not yet gone, when she sets it all aside and turns in her chair (one of the new chairs to match the new table he'd procured for her) to face him.
"Something's up, isn't it?" she asks him (always so straightforward, his Belle).
"I have something for you," he replies. If this were a true presentation, the sort to end with something being owed him for the magic he performed, he would draw it out longer, would paint pictures with fantastical words and movements and gestures.
But this is a different sort of presentation, and she will not owe him anything at the end of this, and so he only stands and retrieves the wrapped box from his overcoat's pocket. Her eyes light up and she tucks the left corner of her mouth inward, nervous and excited and happy and curious all at once (a facial concoction that produces a smile on his face despite the enormity of this gesture).
"Here," he says, offering it to her. "If you'll have it."
He does not even realize that he mirrored his own words when handing her a bespelled rose until her smile turns intimate and private (his smile, with which he made a deal with himself) and she stands and gives him a curtsey.
"Why, thank you," she says with a small giggle, and he can't help but bow with a flourish he hasn't used in decades. It should be awkward and unpracticed and stilted, but instead it is easy and smooth and free. He thinks that is a good sign of what is to come for them. He is no longer afraid every time he sees her (afraid he will hurt her or that she will leave or that it is not true) and she no longer hesitates before believing him when he speaks (no longer watches him with that constant uncertainty at his verity, his honesty, his faithfulness), and that is all the proof he needs that he has changed more than he ever thought he could or would. Maybe even changed enough to make a happy ending for a monster that much more likely.
"Open it," he urges her, nervous even if he is not afraid. He does not sit again, preferring to stand and watch her, leaning on his cane to refrain from trying to pace as he used to do when impatient to see if a deal would be accepted.
She takes her time, and he notices that her hands are trembling. She cannot possibly know what is in the box, but she knows him, so she knows it is important to him, and she loves him, so it is important to her too. When she sets aside the ribbon and tears away the paper and opens the box, she is silent and motionless. She stares down at what he so carefully placed inside and there is a puzzled crease in her brow.
"I…I don't understand," she says slowly. She dances her fingers lightly over the smooth, balanced metal of the knife engraved with his name, but her eyes are steadfast on him.
"I thought this would be less morbid than actually pulling my heart from my chest and giving it to you," he says with a wry smile (because humor is always better, easier, than emotion so strong it can rip him to shreds and drown him and leave him lost and aching).
Her finger traces the curves of his name, and he almost fancies that he can feel her touch simultaneously tracing the contours of his soul (perhaps he truly can). She watches him, her gaze patient and open as she waits for him to explain the gift.
And it is a gift. He's kept the knife safely, obsessively hidden since it first became his, determined never again to be controlled (to be dominated and helpless and weak). But now he freely gives it to her (wants to give it to her). To her, because she is Belle and if she has not used his secrets against him, then he can certainly trust her with his knife.
"It's the Dark One's dagger," he says, standing before her as if he's a supplicant awaiting his Lady's judgment. Perhaps he is, in a way. "Whoever holds it controls the Dark One. Whoever kills the Dark One with it takes the power as their own. Once, a long time ago, I took a beggar into my home and listened to him weave me a tale of hope concerning the possibilities surrounding this dagger. I needed hope, you see. It was the Ogre's Wars and every child was sent to the front lines as soon as they turned fourteen."
Her eyes flicker. Her finger traces his name again and again, memorizing him, mesmerizing him. "And how old was Baelfire?" she asks.
His smile is mirthless, pained and tiny (but there, because she knows him so well). "He was turning fourteen."
Her nod is almost indiscernible. "So you took the knife."
"I stole it," he agrees with a nod. "And I killed the Dark One—and became the Dark One. My predecessor was in thrall to a man who had taken possession of the dagger. So when it was mine, I was careful to keep it hidden, secret and safe, and I exterminated every hint of the legends concerning it to keep anyone from searching for it and stealing it from me."
"But now…you're giving it to me." There is a question in her voice, that puzzlement still clouding her features. He is surprised that she hasn't understood, yet, what he is doing. He hurts and disappoints her all the time, and this is surely the best solution. He trusts her completely, and it will be easier (scarier, harder, but better) to know that she has a way to protect herself (her well-being, her heart, her future) from him. The knife works differently here, but it will be enough, he is sure.
Despite himself, he cannot tear his eyes from her hands. She has not lifted the knife yet, only leaves it in its box on the table and plays her fingertips over its etched surface.
"I'm giving it to you," he repeats, "because it's yours. Yours and Bae's. Everything that I am…is yours."
"No," she says, and he is afraid after all, breathless and choked and frozen. She takes her hands off his dagger and pushes it toward him. "Your heart, I will take," she says, locking him with her transparent gaze. When she smiles, the heart she's claimed seizes up within him. "Not literally, though, Rumplestiltskin, just metaphorically. But I'll only take it because I've given you mine. But this"—she frowns and gestures at the knife—"this is your free will. This is your power of choice, your individuality. And I wouldn't take that from you anymore than you'd put me in chains."
He smiles (swallows back a tactless quip about deals and dungeons) and his fears and doubts, his nervousness and wariness, all disappear. He feels weightless and free, as if he could float away (the weights of his past cut from him), and he wonders at his lack of disappointment, his swell of relief, his rush of gratitude.
"And you wonder why I love you?" he asks, gently, pleased when a light flush adorns her cheeks. "Belle, anyone else would have taken this without a second thought."
She smiles back at him, but there is a shadow in her eyes as she stands (her hand moves automatically to make certain the knife is safely on the table). "This…this was a test then?"
"No," he replies with a shake of his head (remembers another gesture that was and wasn't a test; remembers standing in a tower and watching a road for any sign of the small caretaker who contained a world of happiness within her frame and smile and beguiling words). "It…never even occurred to me that you wouldn't take it."
"Well," she says, and now her smile is uninhibited, as free as he feels, "the next gift you offer me in a small box, I'll accept."
A tremor shakes through his very soul as he winds his arms around her tightly (chaining her in an embrace she can escape whenever she wishes to, an embrace she only steps farther into). "Careful, dearest," he whispers. "Don't make rash promises."
"Three decades isn't exactly what I'd call rash," she retorts. But she isn't smiling anymore and instead of kissing him, she is staring at his chin (and the worry in her eyes begets his own). "Is that what you did?" she asks softly.
Guilt and foreboding (old and familiar and gone so briefly, so transiently) start to take root within him again. But he will not give in, will not let himself be afraid. Not of her. Not after all that has happened. "What do you mean?" he asks.
She steps away from him. (True to his word, he lets his arms fall away, lets her go free.) "Why are you telling me all these things, giving me all your secrets? Did you…" Her gaze is searching, piercing, delving past masks he is trying so hard not to wear around her anymore. "Did you make a deal with someone? You'd tell me a secret every time I…what? Smiled?"
"Only a certain smile," he confesses (he still owes her, after all, for that earlier smile she'd given him).
Her look of sad betrayal stabs deep and staggers him. He no longer feels weightless or free or unafraid. Instead, he is cold and heavy and cut adrift. And he does not know what he did wrong, does not understand where things spiraled away from him. And this is why he'd wanted her to have the knife, so he wouldn't hurt her anymore.
"You made a deal," she says quietly, tonelessly. "With who? Was it David? Ruby? My father? Were they…were they trying to make sure you didn't hurt me, or…" She trails off and looks away but not before he sees tears glittering in sparkling eyes. He hates that she will not look at him (hates that she hides the sparkles in her eyes, denying him the only form of shining armor he is allowed). Her voice is small and fragile (as fragile as their hearts). "I thought…I thought you were telling me because you trusted me."
His eyes narrow and he dares to take a step closer to her. Hope beats like a drum in his chest (hope is always loud and restless, the polar opposite of a broken heart). "Belle…do you want to know who I made the deal with?" He smiles when she chances a glance at him and indicates himself with a flourish of his hand. "Me," he tells her, careless of collecting his payment for this secret. "I made a deal with myself—one of my secrets for every special smile you give me."
He grimaces and it's his turn to look away (it is always too painful, too much, to look her in the eye when he makes his confessions). "Honesty, change"—he cannot help the way his mouth twists over that word—"trust…they're not the best colors on me. But deals are the one thing I know, and keeping deals the one thing I can do. I didn't want to lose you, Belle, and I wanted you to know my secrets even when I thought they would make you leave. In case the dagger didn't give it away, I do trust you."
This is a different kind of confession. It is vulnerable and frail and new and unprecedented. It isn't a sin or a crime or a regret, and he doesn't know what to expect. She does not smile, does not speak at first, but she is staring at him with the expression he knows he wears when she smiles at him or kisses him or says she loves him, and so he allows himself some bit of hope. Allows himself to take a step nearer her.
"Belle," he says, and he does not even care that her name is laded with all the love and hope (and fear) he feels for her.
Her silence is not a condemnation. It is a breath held before a leap of faith, a pause before the dive into clear waters. It is something wondrous and new (he knows because that's how she's looking at him, as if she's never seen him before).
She draws nearer, reaches up her hand, touches his cheek (making sure he's real). When her fingers graze his skin and send shivers racing each other down his body and soul, she smiles up at him. It's a different smile, a smile he's never seen before, one even more beautiful than the smile he sold all his secrets for (he would sell his very soul for this one). She smiles and he does not think he has ever seen her happier. Does not think she has ever been more beautiful.
"I…" she finally says, and her voice strikes deep into the heart of him as if there are no steel and black layers between. "I trust you, too, Rumplestiltskin. With everything I am."
He knows, now, why she was so silent when he told her the same thing. There is a seismic eruption somewhere deep inside him and he feels both a pressure bearing down on him and shackles shattering to leave him free and unfettered. He is at once elated and terrified.
"Are you going to tell me I shouldn't?" she asks when he stares at her, but even if he would have said that, he can't. Can't because she reaches out and slides her hands up his chest and to his neck, shifting her fingers between the hairs at the back of his neck. The power of speech deserts him temporarily, but the stars in her eyes call him back to the present (to her embrace).
"No," he murmurs, and he knows it is the truth when he speaks it. Because he loves her, and he hadn't even known, really, what it was to truly love until her. But he is learning (from her and with her), learning how to love selflessly and wholly and nobly, learning how to give himself away in favor of another. So he might hurt her, but he will not harm her, and he might disappoint her, but he will not divorce himself from her. True Love, and he thinks that for all his arcane knowledge and world-spanning plans and bottled potions, he has never (until now) understood just exactly how powerful that sacred magic is.
"No," he says again. "Trust me, Belle."
It is a plea, a promise, a prayer, and a revelation all at once, and none of his presented deals have ever equaled this one.
She smiles again, that smile he has never seen before today, that smile that knocks him back a step and makes him feel warm and full and safe in a way he has never felt before. "I do," she says. Then she laughs, and he feels the laughter traveling through her, vibrating beneath his hands on her ribcage, and he cannot help but cling tighter to her (hoping her laughter, her happiness and joy, will travel from her body to his).
He thinks that now, surely, she will kiss him, and he is surprised when instead she draws back (her hands still on his shoulders, holding him together) and looks at him very seriously. One of her hands trails down from his shoulder to brush once more against his knife.
"You'll take care of this?" she says (caught between question and command). "Hide it where no one can steal it. Keep it safe."
"I will," he vows. He kept it safe for centuries when it was all that assured his freedom to continue searching for Bae (to keep him from returning to the dust ground mercilessly beneath another's boots), but he will keep it even safer now. Because he's keeping it safe not only for himself, not only for Bae, but also for Belle. And she has known more prisons, more chains, in her short, beautiful life than anyone deserves, and he will not let her be constrained again (not even in worry for him).
"Good," she proclaims, her eyes on him, and then her hands are pulling his head down to hers and her lips are warm and willing and unflinching on his.
He holds her close and drinks in her joy and radiance, and he makes himself a promise (not a deal, this time, just a simple promise). He promises himself that he will not disappoint her. He will not lose her again. And he hopes. He hopes, with all the magic and power in him (with all the remnants of the man he once was and is again) that he will not let her down.
And she smiles against his mouth (so he smiles too) and holds him tighter (and so he holds her tighter) until he cannot tell where he ends and she begins.
And she's right: it is good.
She is in his kitchen, humming as she looks through cupboards. He can smell pancakes and coffee, and he remembers introducing her to the hot drink the first morning after she'd been returned to him, when they'd both been too overwhelmed and afraid to try to sleep. (The wolf-girl must have introduced her to the pancakes.)
For a moment he thinks he is still dreaming (the idea of Belle here, in his house, following routines that had become infinitely precious in their Dark Castle, is not exactly an uncommon theme in his subconscious desires). He moves quietly to the threshold of the kitchen and watches her rummage through his refrigerator until she finds the syrup. He knows there is a small smile on his lips, can feel it there, shaped by an almost painful happiness, a fondness so strong it threatens to unmake him. She is here and that is so much more than he had ever thought to receive (for so many different reasons).
She turns, syrup in hand, and when she sees him, her smile goes shy and sweet and uncertain all at once. He'd given her keys to his house and to his shop long ago (after she'd held him together when he'd told her about letting go of Bae), because he wanted her to be safe. The wards he has established, the magic that pulses through him, the fear inspired by his name and reputation—it is all the protection he can offer her (not enough to save her from his own angry banishment, from his lies and betrayal, from his fear and secrecy; from him), but he had wanted her to know it was hers should she ever want or need it. He had not dared to hope, then, that she would come just to give him a smile and make him pancakes (he had, oh he had hoped, but it had seemed too selfish and fantastical then). But now here she is, and his bones feel too small and old to support all the happiness he holds.
"Hey," he says (the only word that will emerge past his euphoria), and her smile loses its uncertainty, turns happy and pleased.
"Good morning," she says, and she sets the syrup down and glides forward to hug him.
He is frozen an instant, and then he slides his free arm around her and holds on. Once, he would have held on so tightly simply to ensure that she stayed with him. But now he holds on this tightly because he wants to, because she is holding onto him, because he loves feeling her breathing next to him.
"Good morning," he repeats because she makes it true. (Now that he is not looking at her, so beautiful and smiling, the power of speech is returned to him.) "You're all right?" he asks, just to be sure that she came because she wanted to, not because she needed to.
"I'm fine," she assures him with a caress of her hand down the side of his neck. She bites her lip and looks up at him from under her lashes, and he loves how trustingly she holds herself in his arms. "I thought we could branch out to other meals besides just lunch and dinner."
"So, breakfast, then?" He smirks at her and relishes the pink flush rising on her cheeks, highlighting dimples.
"I miss you," she admits seriously, hugging him tighter, and his heart starts beating faster, thrumming like joy and audible hope.
"I miss you, too," he returns after an instant's pause. And he does. He sees her often, usually at least once a day, but not always for long and never as often as he'd like (not in the morning when he comes downstairs, or at his side when he walks to the shop, or across the table at every dinner, or next to him when he goes to sleep). The last few days have been particularly hard since Rumplestiltskin's services have been required by the war brewing within Storybrooke's confining borders and there has been little time for visiting the library for lunch. Seeing Belle is like a breath of fresh air, and he has been suffocating for too long.
"I thought…" She looks at her hand laying flat and warm against his chest (he wonders if she can feel the rapid tempo of hope and love beating within). "I thought breakfast together would be nice."
He should not ask, not yet, not now, not when she has not yet said that she has had enough distance and time to heal the wounds he inflicted. But he wants this, and she came on her own, and she seeks his touch, and she is looking at him as if waiting for him to ask, and so he hopes (a hope almost entirely untainted by fear.)
And so he asks.
"You…could come back. Here. To stay." With me, he wants to add, but centuries of fear (a lifetime of denial and rejection) are not so easy to set aside.
She hears the last bit anyway (because she is Belle, so special and unique and more powerful even than magic), and she stares up at him with wide, luminous eyes. He thinks she is about to smile, about to throw her arms around him (he thinks she will say yes), and for once, she does not surprise him.
"I would like that," she tells him and he basks in her light, like a dragon preening before the forgiving (loving) touch of the maiden it had thought to devour and who instead had charmed the scaled beast.
"Then stay," he whispers, and he leans down and catches her up in his arms (long, spindly arms that are, for the first time, just right) and courts her lips with the secrets in his own.
They are pulled apart (only physically, though) by the smell of something burning. She gasps and flies from his arms to the stove, muttering at and pleading with the food in turns. He watches her and feels that small, unfamiliar smile return to his tingling lips (he thinks it is a smile of contentment, and marvels at it).
The black edges to the pancakes don't bother him at all (he cannot taste anything but Belle in his mouth). He scarcely takes his eyes from her (not afraid that she will disappear, just loath to miss a moment of happiness; he is still a covetous man after all). She wrinkles her nose at her own food and plays with her glass of milk, but she keeps one of her hands in his and she is happy (a miracle more magical than anything else he has ever encountered).
"I have a secret to tell you," she finally blurts out.
He smiles and thinks of the secret he carries in his pocket (so tiny and precious, and she has already promised to accept it), but he only says mildly, "Oh?"
"Yes." She is gleeful and conspiratorial, and he delights in seeing this new color on her. "When I first…first figured out what you were doing when I smiled at you, I decided to give you my secrets too."
"For my smiles?" he asks, and she is back to surprising him. He does not think anyone has ever courted his smiles or been interested in whether he made them or not (except his beloved Bae, who would make faces and tug on his sleeve until his papa laughed, but that memory is like searing fire inside him so he will keep it submerged until he can give it to Belle's cooling, soothing care).
"No." She shrugs, wraps her fingers closer around his hand. "But every time you did something I knew was uncomfortable for you, every time you tried for my sake…I tried to give you a secret. Only…I don't have many"—she looks almost embarrassed by this, which amuses him—"so they were mostly just doubts, fears, private insecurities."
He gazes at her and knows that he cannot possibly love her more (knows that he will love her more every day).
"I thought…" Hesitant nervousness moves through her, and now it is his turn to tighten his hold on her slender fingers (reassuring rather than constraining). "I hoped that maybe by hearing that others were unsure and afraid, too, you would realize you weren't as unworthy as you thought."
"And are you still afraid?" he asks her. Her reasoning does not make sense, he thinks, but he does feel stronger, braver, worthy and valuable because she allows him to be the one to see her when she is weak and hurting and to be the one to hold her together, bind her back up. It doesn't make sense, but nothing in his life has ever made sense, and this is the best of all the mysteries he's encountered.
"No." Her smile is back, as strong as his grip on her hand (as if she seeks to hold him to her by the power of her smile; it would work, he is sure). "But I was thinking that maybe we could make a new deal."
"A deal? With the Dark One?" He lets his eyes glitter with soft intensity, lets his voice raise slightly in pitch. It has been so long since he could play and laugh with her (so long since guilt and pain have not weighed him down), and she sparkles brighter at his exaggerated expression and drawling tone. "Careful, dearest. You might end up selling away your soul."
"I don't want to sell my soul." She studies him carefully, but he does not need that to know this is important to her, perhaps as important as her response to his invitation to move back in was to him. "I want to sell my secrets." She takes a deep breath, and she looks just like she did just before kissing him beside a spinning wheel. "Or rather, instead of selling our secrets, couldn't we make a deal that we…we won't keep secrets from each other? We could exchange them. Share—"
"Share everything," he finishes for her. It is a daunting idea, almost terrifying in its finality, its expansiveness, but it is worth it when she explodes with happiness and love and hope.
"Is it a deal you would make?" she asks carefully, trying so hard to hide her desire for this (trying to change for him).
"You must have heard that I never turn down deals," he murmurs, bending forward to lean his face near hers, nuzzling her cheek with his nose and smelling the roses in her hair, treasuring the shiver that runs through her as she rests her head against his.
"And you never break your deals," she finishes for him, and kisses him on the cheek. They have shared more intimate kisses, but something about the tiny gesture completely disarms him. There is no guile or deception in it, nothing at all held back; she loves him, and she trusts him now, and so the kiss is natural to her. One day, he thinks that maybe he will be able to return those gestures without any fear or second-guessing, give them to her as easily and naturally as she gives them to him.
"So," she whispers, not sounding particularly interested in her words as she burrows her own nose into his neck, "do you have any more secrets?"
"Many," he tells her (regretfully, honestly, even gleefully cunningly because he has a small box in his pocket still that one day, when things are not so new and tentative and perfect, he will show her). There has always been a sense of urgency and finality to every secret he revealed, the idea that he would never have a chance again making him impatient and clumsy, but now…now there will be many chances, many days, many secrets. And this is a bright morning better suited to kisses than to secrets. "But we have time for them all. Later."
"Later," she agrees, and silvery blue eyes blink back bright crystal tears, and then she moves from her chair to his and she is fully in his arms. Her heart beats wildly next to (in tandem with) his, and for the first time, Rumplestiltskin is not afraid.
For the first time, he is brave.
He opens the door the next evening and she is there on his doorstep, a few bags at her feet. "I'm back, Rumplestiltskin," she says, and she smiles that special, beautiful smile that is his and his alone.
It is a gift, that smile, and they have a new deal, so he does not feel compelled to pay for the smile or for her presence and happiness. Instead, he simply smiles back at her, and he opens his door, and he says, "Welcome home, Belle."
She steps inside (into his arms) and he closes the door behind them (closes his embrace around her) shutting out the rest of the world (both worlds). Then he kisses her, and their secrets are forever safe between their lips.