A/N: It might have some pacing problems. Perhaps it's in my head, I don't know. I just had sooo much I wanted to write that I had to cut it down and it feels funny now.
Rumplestiltskin was ready to admit that he hadn't had much of a plan as he'd sneaked aboard the pirate ship. He'd thought he'd find Milah and sneak her out, hoping against hope she wasn't locked up but merely tied or restrained in some way he could undo. But the vessel was bigger than he'd thought, and his limp had slowed him down considerably. By the time he'd felt the unusual movement of the ship it'd been too late: they'd set sail with him still on-board.
Panic had surged inside him, and his trembling had made hiding a difficult task. He'd been found huddled behind some crates, and dragged in front of the Pirate Captain, who'd made a mockery of his plea of mercy for his wife on behalf of his child and had then challenged him to a duel. That's how he found himself gripping his staff with one hand and a rusty cutlass with the other, the uneven weight messing with his already-precarious balance.
He couldn't fight. He wouldn't win against a skilled swordsman much more used to the rocking of the ship, much less against the rest of his bloody crew if by some miracle of fate he managed to get one over the captain. Bae was waiting for him ashore, safe in the care of a neighbouring couple, and he needed to think about his boy. Milah, bless her soul, would want him to. She wouldn't care about his life, she'd made that very clear, but she'd care if he left the lad an orphan without anyone to provide for him.
"I can't!" he almost sobbed, begging the other man to understand, to exercise a bit of empathy and let him and his wife go. He didn't love her, and she didn't love him, but Bae needed them both.
"A man unwilling to fight for what he wants deserves what he gets."
The quiet words of the captain tore through Rumplestiltskin's heart, familiar self-loathing bubbling up from the wound. A coward, always a coward, destined to let everyone down and be less than other men. But to die now, simply to let his pride heal a little, would be to have Baelfire loose him. That couldn't happen.
He avoided the captain's eyes as he let the sword in his hand clatter to the ground, head bowed in a submissive gesture he was all too familiar with. Worthless, it told the world. A waste. A shame.
"Turn the ship around, let's dump this quivering spinner back on land before we continue our journey!"
The captain's orders seemed strange to Rumplestiltskin, but welcomed. He didn't know why the captain didn't merely lock him up and leave him on shore on the next port they called, but if it meant he was going to return to Bae sooner he wasn't about to question it.
"I'm afraid you'll have to rethink that last order, captain."
There was a puff of purple mist that blinded everyone on deck temporarily. When it dissipated it revealed two new people standing a few feet away from the captain. One was a man, not very tall and slim, wearing well-cut, expensive-looking clothes: a pair or dark brown pants, looser than most members of the nobility wore them, almost peasant-like if not for the colour and fabric, a more fitted white shirt and a golden vest, the cut not very complicated but the fabric looking like gold threads woven together. He held a cane, dark wood and a golden handle, and had a ring on his right hand, a large blue stone gleaming under the midday sun. His hair was straight and brown, wisps of grey here and there. But the thing Rumplestiltskin noticed most was his face. The eyes, the nose, the lips… It was like looking in a mirror.
That man was a better-dressed, cleaner version of himself.
But the differences were even more astonishing than the similarities. There was an aura of power around this stranger that the spinner was very sure he could never even begin to emulate. Confidence and poise oozed off of him, and he stood tall and relaxed, while Rumplestiltskin still cowered a few feet away.
"What is the meaning of this?" Captain Jones snarled, turning his weapon on the new arrival.
"Pointing a sword at a lady? Shame on you, dearie."
Even the accent was similar, thought the stranger spoke with more restraint and a lot more confidence. When the words finally registered in the peasant's mind, however, he turned his eyes briefly away from his doppelgänger to take in the man's companion. He saw at first rich brown hair in curls, thick and shiny. The woman was petite, even shorter than he was, clad in a dark rose dress with cap sleeves that reached barely her knees and had and a brown leather belt above her waist. Some sort of cream-coloured leggings kept the length modest, and the fabric looked sturdy as well as expensive, butter soft but practical. Dress boots, sensible-looking for stepping aboard a ship and kid gloves served as further protection, but looked somehow out of place amongst the old rigs and sails, like they didn't really belong there at all.
Once his spinner mind had enough of analysing her clothes his eyes took in the rest of her, and a sort of haze came over him. She was enchanting, fair skin and big blue yes, rose lips spread into a tentative smile as she took in her surroundings. With half her hair pulled away from her face with the aid of a ribbon he could admire the pale column of her neck, and the exquisite delicacy of her collarbone. But as small and fragile as the beauty looked there was something about her, her posture, perhaps, or a glint in her eyes, that spoke of strength and endurance. The contrast between the superficial frailty and the inner strength made the spinner's heart flutter strangely. He quickly averted his eyes, years of experience being a poor nobody telling him that he had no business looking upon someone like her.
"Now, now, Rum, you promised to behave," the woman's voice was warm and deceptively teasing, but she gently placed a hand on his look-alike's left arm. Said man turned to look at her for a second before nodding and directing his attention once again to the captain. He was a stronger man than him, to be able to turn away from such a sight.
"Fear not, Mr Jones, you will live to see another day as long as we can come to some sort of mutual understanding. And by that I mean as long as you do as I say, and not get much in the way."
The captain didn't seem to agree with his look-alike's definition of "understanding", quick to lunge, sword held firm. The stranger dodged easily, pulling the woman with him behind him, moving quick to strike with his cane, disarming the pirate with an ease the spinner envied deep in his bones.
"I see it's gonna have to be the hard way," the man sneered "Such a pity."
A swift blow to the head had the feared Killian Jones on his knees, the tip of the man's cane digging into his left shoulder. Beside him the woman was pressing herself against his side, stilling any further movements. She whispered something into his ear, and the stranger nodded tightly before releasing his grip on the pirate. By this time the rest of the crew had gotten over their shock and were advancing towards the couple with swords and knives at the ready. It took a swift motion of the stranger's hand to disarm them all, and two more to immobilize them.
"Now, now, no ones needs to be a hero today," the doppelgänger's voice became high-pitched, almost manic "This is what's going to happen. My lady and I need to get to some place nearby to retrieve something of value. We will use this ship to get there, and you will all be very obliging little puppets till we get what we came for and be on our merry little way," he spoke to the entire crew but turned to look straight into the captain's eyes.
"Who are you?" Jones asked, his haze fluttering to the spinner cowering in a corner, seeing the resemblance clearly there. The stranger smiled, a cunning, cruel twist of the lips Rumplestiltskin could never see himself making. The other he bent slightly, taking care of his knee in a way that was very familiar to the peasant.
"I," he said "am the future. And you best take care I treat you kindly, captain."
The privateer sneered but nodded, watching as the men fell out of whatever thrall they were under. None of them moved, whoever free they suddenly found themselves to do so, and the spinner saw in their eyes fear much like the one he saw shining in his own whenever he caught his reflection on a shiny surface.
"And what connection do you have with that scared little thing?" the pirate's chin pointed in his general direction and the spinner made himself as small as he could, willing his limbs to stop trembling. It felt strange, to have someone with his eyes gaze upon him, but the sensation was muted by the strangely more compelling feeling of a pair of impossibly-blue eyes staring at him. The stranger's companion seemed as enthralled by him as he was by her, and it seemed quite ridiculous. But, however incongruous she still stared unabashedly, drinking him in with a sort of exquisite eagerness that sent shivers down the peasant's body. No woman had ever looked at him like that, not even his wife.
"It's rather complicated," the stranger's voice caught him by surprise and he jumped, startled "When I said I was the future… I meant his future."
The man's words made no sense. Rumplestiltskin's mind scrambled for an answer, fearing being left in the dark. Finally it clicked in his head, though it seemed impossible the more he thought it over.
"You're… you're me?" he stuttered out, disbelief coating his voice. The stranger smiled, an unpleasant sort of gesture.
"In a manner of speaking, dearie. I am you in about three centuries, give or take a decade."
The peasant's eyes widened even more, a gasp escaping him.
"Rum, you're frightening him," the beauty chided his future-self, frowning at him before her gaze settled again on the shabby spinner.
"Please, don't be afraid. We will explain, I promise. It's going to be alright, you'll see."
She smiled in his direction, all softness and calm and it was enough to make a man's head spin. He found himself ridiculously believing her every word, feeling that as long as she was there he would be fine. More than fine.
"Oh, Belle, do not get attached," the stranger chided the woman lightly, eyeing him up and down and dismissing him "After all we're here but on temporary business."
There was a twinge of something unpleasant on the man's voice and Rumplestiltskin was apparently not the only one to notice it. The woman did too, pressing herself to his side, resting her forehead against his left shoulder.
"Stop," she muttered "I know what you're thinking, so stop."
"Well, this is touching," Killian Jones's deadpan tone left much to be desired "But if you really don't need me I'd like to just set course for whatever place it is we're going to so this can be over as soon as possible."
The stranger snorted.
"What, eager to be back in the arms of your true love?" he asked, disdain coating his voice "Tell Milah she better keep out of sight as much as possible, I have little desire to deal with her. The less I look upon her treacherous face the better for all involved."
At the mention of his wife Rumplestiltskin brightened.
"Please, Sir, please," it felt strange referring to himself as "sir" but his future self looked and acted nothing like him "You can help me get my wife back from these pirates. They'll rape her and kill her and… Bae needs a mother. Please, sir!"
His doppelgänger got a curiously blank look in his eyes, and his lady tightened her hold on him. Several seconds passed in silence before the man replied, his voice strangely subdued:
"She's not here by force, dearie. She left you and her son, and the lovely Captain Jones here, with his code and his good form, was about to let you walk out of here thinking that your lame leg and common sense had cost the mother of your child her life," he paused, watching as Rumplestiltskin's face displayed the dawning horror of his realization "Believe me, hers is not a loss I felt particularly acutely."
"But… but why? Why would she do that?"
The stranger smirked, no humour behind the gesture, making it look more like a grimace.
"Because she was so miserable she couldn't bear it. Because she never loved you, dearie."
People went about their business aboard the ship, and mostly Rumplestiltskin tried to stay out of everyone's way. Mr Gold, the name his future self had chosen to be called to avoid confusion seemed to have everything under control, the pirates quickly learning just what sort of power he had. Huddled in a corner as he was Rumple had at first attempted to watch closely the movements of his future self, trying to see just how different from him he was. He wanted to commit his confidence and nonchalance to memory, to be able to remember how confidence looked etched across his face, since he had never seen it in his own reflection. Maybe if he could learn to act like the Rumplestiltskin with power he would eventually become someone who didn't run for cover at the slightest noise.
But try as he might to keep his attention on his doppelgänger his eyes always strayed hopelessly to the woman who had come with him. He hadn't learned her name in the short day they had been sailing, but he didn't need to know it to admire her from afar as she inspected the ship and everything in it. No man dared approach her, her safety guaranteed by her companion's power. Rumple couldn't imagine, however, anyone wanting to harm someone as lovely and wondrous.
He wondered what she was to his future self… A niece, perhaps? An apprentice of some sort? An adoptive daughter? A friend? He'd heard some of the pirates speculate that she might be Gold's whore, his little kept woman, but he didn't believe that at all. She didn't seem the type, too straightforward for deceit, too prideful for such a shameful position. It was, oddly enough, Captain Jones who helped him solve the little puzzle by making a not-so-subtle pass at her through her companion. The good captain seemed to oscillate between having the common sense to shut up and go with the flow, seeing as he had so little choice, and to try and antagonize Mr Gold through little barbed comments and general unhelpfulness no doubt irked at being under the mercy of someone he had once humiliated quite thoroughly His future self seemed to care little for Jones's petty jabs, displaying a level-headedness that quite befuddled Rumplestiltskin. He had taken insults from everywhere most of his life, mostly because he had never been in a position to stand up for himself and he doubted that, had he the power to make people pay, he would be so imperturbable.
Not even the mention of Milah seemed to do anything other than mildly annoy him, and he was glad his wife was being kept somewhere he didn't know about. He felt the prickle of shame at the mere idea of seeing her, knowing she had walked out on him because he hadn't been man enough to keep her interest or keep her happy. She was the embodiment of all his failures as a man and a human being. On the other hand he was surprised to also feel anger festering inside him, anger not only at the thought of Milah abandoning poor little Bae but also at the realization that his wife, his wife, would've been willing to let him go through life thinking his cowardice had doomed her to a fate worse than death.
As the night wore on, and he huddled against some barrels on deck, trying to think where he'd be sleeping, he heard the Captain try and goad his doppelgänger by commenting on the still figure of his companion, who was on the forecastle, staring at the ocean painted silver by the light of the moon.
"What beauty you guard, Gold," the pirate commented, his looks lascivious as it stared at the woman. Gold sneered but refrained from comment.
"Truly a man's dream," the captain went on about the prettiness of her hair and the fairness of her skin and even Rumplestiltskin, not one for violence, had to repress a gut urge to knock the man unconscious with a discarded oar from a row boat nearby "And let's not forget those impressive breasts, sadly hidden from the world by layers of…"
Whatever the man was about to say was cut close as invisible hands clamped around his throat, making it impossible for him to draw breath. When Rumplestiltskin summoned the courage to look at his look-alike's face he was both fascinated and frightened by the level of raw anger he saw in there. It was, truly, the face of a stranger.
"You will never again talk about my lady in such familiar way, pirate," he ground out, his voice tight and yet soft. But Jones was not ready to concede the point, gasping in an effort to form words.
"And… just what… claim might you… have on such enchanting creature?"
Inside the spinner bristled. It wasn't enough for this pirate to have taken his wife, now he wanted the angel too. Gold waved a hand and, suddenly, Jones was sailing through the air and colliding with a mast with a painful thud.
"True love," he muttered, eyes almost feral as he looked at the fallen man on deck "Not to mention marriage, dearie."
Rumplestiltskin knocked over the two barrels keeping him hidden in his shock. Clearly he had heard the man wrong, because he still couldn't believe Milah had married him, so the idea that the exquisite little fairy-like woman was not only his new wife but his true love seemed well and truly ridiculous.
"Rum, I thought we agreed it was best if we didn't tell," the woman's voice caught him by surprise, making him trip and fall on the ground "Look, you've shocked him!"
He felt warmth pool inside his stomach as the woman knelt before him, her hands carding through his hair, pushing it back so she could look upon his face.
"Are you alright?" she asked, frowning and tracing a thumb across his left temple "You have a cut."
She seemed distressed to see him hurt so and the sight of her pain made Rumplestiltskin wish fervently for something, anything, that would make the lady smile. He raised one of his own hands to grasp hers, gently moving it away from the injury.
"'tis nothing, milady," it felt strange to think of her as his wife and much less his true love. People like him got tolerance and wary respect at best. True love was for knights and Kings, for heroes and fair maidens. It wasn't for ordinary people, much less for poor little wretches like him. The woman smiled at him and it fell like the sun shone just for him.
"Call me Belle. After all, I am to be your wife."
She tried to make light of the idea, even as his gaze strayed to the band of gold on her left ring finger and the diamond ring next to it, the pale pink stone fascinating him. His wife. It seemed impossible, even as this girl, this Belle, asked for warm water and proceeded to bathe his forehead gently with a rag, dabbing at the cut with utmost care before applying some sort of paste that alleviated the throbbing like magic.
"Now, you must take better care of yourself. I aim to receive you in one piece."
One of her hands stroked his cheek, her thumb gently brushing away a bit of crusted dirt and he blushed, remembering he was dirty and sweaty and so far beneath her it wasn't even funny.
"Please, I don't deserve your kindness, milady," he stuttered out, trying to move away from her slightly. He'd only soil her and her pretty dress. The Lady Belle sighed, some dark and sad emotion fleeting across her eyes before she stood up.
"I'm sorry, and this is terribly selfish of me, but I can't help myself," she bit her lip, and the spinner's innards did a funny little dance inside him "I know I'm not your true love nor your wife, not yet, but to me you are my husband. I can't seem to keep from… wanting to treat you as such. I'm sorry, I've overstepped my boundaries."
She moved away even as every bone in his body berated him for making her do so. Stupid, stupid, to talk when he could've just enjoyed her nearness for however long it lasted. He watched her go with regret, following her as she climbed the steps to the Quarterdeck, where the other Rumplestiltskin was waiting for her, an unreadable look on his features. The moment he had her at arm's length her hauled her close, dipping his head to capture his lips with hers, his arms going around her waist and upper back as he ravaged her mouth. It was a strange sight, and the spinner couldn't name half the conflicting emotions he felt as he watched his future self lift a hand to tangle it in his wife's hair, her arms wrapping around his shoulders in response. When they at last parted, not without reluctance, he saw Gold smile the first genuine smile ever.
"Well, at least now that the secret's out I get to do that."
But he could identify the feeling most prominent, the one twisting around his gut like a vice: Jealousy. Unbridled, unwarranted and uncontrollable jealousy. He envied himself.
And, judging by the look of utter triumph Gold shot him over Lady Belle's shoulder, his other self was very aware of that.
He started wracking his brain for ways to talk to her again after the blunder he'd made of things the last time but it turned out he needn't have worried, not that he could think with the way his stomach rebelled at the mere motion of the ship. A patch of slightly rough sea was making the journey a tad more uncomfortable to some and downright intolerable for him. He found a secluded part of the deck were to retch in peace and curl up in a ball, clutching his stomach and dry-heaving. He drifted in and out of darkness after a while, hunger and nausea gnawing at him till he lost sense of time. It wasn't till he felt hands on him, stroking the nape of his neck and pressing a cold wet cloth against it that he dared open his eyes. The Lady Belle was kneeling beside him, trying to get him to turn over to lie on his left side.
"Come on, it will make you feel better," she encouraged, her voice low and soothing. He did as she bid, noticing his stomach did seem to hurt less, and concentrated on the cooling sensation of the wet cloth against the back of his neck.
"Open up, this will settle your stomach," Gold's wife placed something under his tongue "It's ginger. Suck on it."
He did so at once, wanting the nausea to go away so he could focus on the woman beside him, so loving and caring even after he'd rejected her so. After a few minutes his stomach seemed to settle enough to sit up. The brunette helped him, lending her shoulder so he could lean on her slightly. When he finally calmed down enough she offered him a goblet of icy water.
"Tiny sips, mind you," she instructed "Then, if you feel up to it, we might try with some fruit. But first, the water."
He wanted to protest when she held the goblet to his lips. She was a noble lady, clearly, educated and refined, and he nothing but a lowly spinner yet she waited on him. It was shameful and he didn't want her to lower herself so. He was also filthy and he was pretty sure he smelled of vomit and sheep. But to refuse her help, to return her kindness with ingratitude, seemed ever worse, so he swallowed his protests and sipped from the goblet as instructed. Gradually strength started returning to his limbs and he stopped shaking so badly, though the hunger still gnawed at him.
"There," the Lady Belle lightly carded her fingers through his hair, pulling it away from his face to check that his cheeks had regained a normal colour "All better."
"T-t-thanks," he stuttered, not quite meeting her eyes but catching the blossoming of her smile all the same.
"No matter. Rum… I mean, my Rum, told me once he used to get seasick all the time before… he got his powers, so I figured you'd be in need of some help."
Her smile was so warm, so loving, it seemed foreign when directed at him. To Rumplestiltskin kindness felt like myth, the stuff of fairytales and magic. He'd seldom experienced it in life, mostly from Bae who would sometimes push some of his food into his plate when he thought he wasn't looking. But kindness from a stranger, and someone so above him, was unprecedented. So was love. And it hurt because it was not his love to accept. It belonged to his future self, so far removed from who he was they might as well be two completely different people.
"No," the woman's voice cut through his morose thoughts "I know that look, it's the look my husband gets when he's thinking dark thoughts and I don't care for it," she urged him to stand up, leading him to the captain's quarters, where he knew she was sleeping along with her husband. There he found a large copper tub filled with steamy water.
"I was going to bathe, but you need it more than I do. The smell will upset your stomach again," she told him while she gathered a bundle of clothes from inside a chest "These are spare clothes from the crew, I picked what I thought would fit you best and made sure it was clean. I will be back in thirty minutes."
There was no time to protest, to object like he knew he ought to have. The Lady Belle was gone in the blink of an eye and a part of him, the part who wanted to smell of something other than livestock and sickness. He barely gave himself time to just enjoy the first touch of hot water on his skin in years, so eager he was to scrub himself clean with the most fragrant soap he'd ever held, taking particular care with his hair. A small voice inside him sneered at his efforts, calling him pathetic and worthless. He had a wife, a wife that just a day ago he'd come to save from a gruesome fate that turned out to be a lie. He had a son waiting for him, and a life to struggle through, and it served no purpose to be fantasizing about a beautiful woman just because she was kind to him.
It was more, though. He felt it, even if it wasn't really directed at him. Love. Belle, for in his mind he could dare call her what he couldn't to her face, was irrefutably in love with her husband and she seemed to be surrounded by it. He'd never felt anything like it before, the utter devotion and boundless warmth, and it was strangely captivating. He didn't care if he wasn't the object of her affections, if he was a mere shadow of the man she loved, a sort of look-alike that got the scraps of another man's meal. For him it was better than anything he could have ever expected and certainly more than he deserved.
Having no purpose on the ship allowed Rumplestiltskin ample time to discreetly follow Belle around. At first he did so because he was wary of the crew and, as much fear as Mr Gold inspired in everyone, sometimes the spinner would catch some of the sailors looking at the lady in an entirely inappropriate way. Belle seemed to welcome his company, always smiling when she caught sight of him. She was immensely curious, which seemed ridiculous to him, but never asked him anything, merely listened attentively to whatever information he was willing to give. She was also very open about herself, sharing with him her love of books, cooking, gardening and people-watching and her feeling of not belonging, or not fitting in sometimes. It marvelled him, that someone such as herself could feel the way he felt sometimes, and made the beauty more human, much less beyond his grasp.
He was happy to spend whatever time her husband would not commandeer. To see them together was strange, and it made something coil inside his chest, smothering him. But be that as it may he could hardly keep his eyes off them when together, noticing how comfortable Gold was with her and the ease with which they shared their personal space and moved around each other. He tried not to be obvious about his staring, even if the other pirates barely acknowledged him- though obviously Gold had instructed that food be provided to him, which it was- but eventually he got caught. Glancing at the couple from the window that communicated the galley with the main deck he almost had a heart attack when someone laughed right behind him. He turned bracing himself on his staff so as to remain upright and found himself face to face with his wife. Milah looked at him like she usually did at the tavern, contempt and bitterness and a small sliver of genuine pity. It was the last that hurt the most.
"You better turn your eyes to other pursuits, Rumple, because that is way out of your league," she told him, mocking and serious at the same time. Torn between embarrassment and anger, something he had seldom felt towards Milah, he shrugged.
"Apparently not. She seems to like me well enough with a few centuries under my belt."
She tilted her head, arching an eyebrow in that gesture he knew to mean she was wiser to the ways of men than he was. Milah had always had a knack for making him feel inferior and he steeled himself against such a look.
"Come on, Rumple, surely you can appreciate just how unlike him you are. It takes you gaining power, confidence, flair and a backbone for her to look at you twice," she joined him by the window, staring at the couple so unlike themselves "I mean, I wouldn't have left you had you been half what he is."
He felt the blow almost like a physical thing, but couldn't say why that statement, when she had insulted him countless times before, many of those in front of their neighbours and family, hurt more than anything else she'd ever said. He clutched his staff together, self-pity and hatred churning inside him, and avoided her eyes, wanting desperately not to fall into a confrontation.
"Why are you even here, Milah? You made your choice, you chose to leave me, leave your son, and let me carry the burden for that abandonment! Why even talk to me anymore?"
Never had he raised his voice to his wife, yet he dared do it then, knowing it was long overdue. He should've done it before instead of letting it all fester inside him, to rip him from the inside out. It was, perhaps, too late, but it felt good all the same.
His wife smiled, a bitter gesture, and shrugged her shoulders, acting nonchalant.
"I just wanted you to know how pathetic it looked, the way you trail behind her like an obliging little pet. I know you don't possess much pride, Rumplestiltskin but I still thought you were better than that."
Though he tried to forget Milah's words, Rumplestiltskin couldn't, and bowed to distance himself from Belle. He huddled alone in his little corner of the deck that night, under the thin blankets one of the members of the crew had reluctantly given him, centring his thoughts around wee Bae, trying to assure himself that he had been left among good people that would care for him until his return. He imagined himself telling his son his mother would no longer be with them, trying to find ways in which he could explain that without revealing the truth. Bae wouldn't understand, nor did he deserve to know his mother had abandoned him. Better he think her dead, he decided.
A shrill cry cut through his thoughts and put him immediately on high alert. His cowardly nature drove him to duck for cover first. Several minutes passed in dead silence before he heard the soft padding of naked feet on the deck's wood floor. When his curiosity got the best of him he dared take a peek at the forecastle. There, huddled into a tiny ball and staring at the waves, was Belle. He could tell from where he was, several feet away, that she was dressed in a thin, gossamer nightgown entirely inappropriate for the brisk sea weather, and that she was shaking far too much for it to be because of the cold alone. He knew the cause well enough: fear. Fear like he had felt a thousand times before but that seemed out of place in someone like Belle.
He caught himself making a move to grab his staff, resolute to go and see if he could be of help, and stopped himself. He was being stupid, and forward, and needed to think before he acted. Seconds later a new figure emerged on deck, a man with a limp, carrying an blanket. Gold looked, in sleeping clothes, as authoritative and powerful as he did during the day, but his eyes reflected worry. They didn't speak when he reached her, merely wrapping the fabric around her shoulders and pulling her to lean against his chest, himself leaning against the foremast. He watched as he kissed the crown of her head and then nuzzled against the crook of her neck, resting his forehead against her left shoulder. They remained thus for a while, and the spinner couldn't stop watching them to save his life. Finally Belle turned around, rose on the tips of her toes to kiss her husband warmly, and led him by the hand back to the captain's quarters.
The next days Rumplestiltskin tried to pretend he couldn't see how out of sorts Belle seemed to be. They had docked near a small island, and Gold had gone ashore with a small group of pirates, a very unwilling Jones included, and had left enough enchantments and threats to ensure those of the crew left on board the ship would behave in his absence. The spinner had bowed to keep his distance, but it had never occurred to him that the beauty would seek him out. He was rather surprised to almost collide with her as he limped towards the gun deck, where he had planned to find the solitude to turn a useless lump of wood he had found discarded into a carving for Bae, maybe a toy horse he could play around with. Hi might be a coward, but he was a coward with a knack for manual labour of all sorts.
"I'm sorry to interrupt you," she smiled and smoothed her hands over her periwinkle-blue dress, a gesture he judged to be born from nerves "But I wanted to know if I could keep you company. I have a book, you see," she lifted an old leather-bound tome to show him "But I find solitude to be… irksome right now. I promise I'll be quiet as a mouse, you'll hardly notice I'm here."
Rumplestiltskin very much doubted that, but he could deny her nothing, so he left a wide enough space for her to sit comfortably, though she chose to huddle close to him, so close he could feet her heat against his skin. He concentrated on the motions of the small knife he was using, but it was impossible for him to ignore the smell of her, or the small humming noise of pleasure she made from time to time as she read something particularly interesting. Finally, when he narrowly missed slicing off a finger for the third time he set his work aside, giving into the urge to ask her something he'd been curious about for a while.
"M-m—milady, might I…? That is to say, I was wondering…" he grew red in the face as his tongue all but stuck to the rood of his mouth. Belle closed her book and waited patiently for him to speak "I'm curious about what exactly… drew you to Gold."
She tilted her head, a small smile blooming across her face as she contemplated the answer.
"Well, at first he pretended to be this man of mystery and intrigue… that lasted very little, to tell you the truth. The first thing I noticed was his sense of humour, his ability to find something to laugh at in all situations, even when they went against him. After… things progressed, I guess you could say, and we got to know each other he was… he was…" the spinner waited with baited word for whatever word would come out of her mouth "Awkward. Incredibly awkward, in the most adorable way. So fragile, my dear Rumplestiltskin, so on his guard all the time, and tired, and unused to kindness or touch. Using fear and quips to keep people away, but gentle as a lamb when one took the trouble to break through his barriers. He's a gentle soul, capable of the most fierce loyalty, and the most breathtaking devotion. My Rumplestiltskin has a lot of layers, but love is supposed to be that way," she blushed suddenly, and the spinner noticed then that he had been leaning closer and closer "I'm sorry, I'm talking your ear off when all you wanted was to get on with your work in peace."
His knife and carving lay forgotten somewhere on the floor, where they had slipped sometime during their talk. His mind kept replaying her words and he kept trying not to dwell on them, not to read into them what he desperately wished to. Fortunately the lady herself offered a distraction in the form of a question.
"I… Actually, if you don't mind, I wanted to know if you could tell me about your son," when the spinner frowned, puzzled, she was quick to explain, with as little detail as possible, how her husband had lost his son many years ago and how he was seeking now a way to reunite with him.
"We've come here to seek the last ingredients needed to do away with the final barrier. Soon he will be finally reunited with his son and… to tell you the truth," she bit her lip "I'm scared. He knows nothing of me, he… he might not approve."
It was ridiculous, really, and Rumplestiltskin could not contain a laugh, though he did apologize profusely for it.
"It is a very painful subject for Rumple, so I try not to bring it up. But I thought perhaps you could…"
"Bae is the most wonderful boy," he was also Rumplestiltskin's pride and joy and so talking of him came as natural as breathing "Astute and brave, but not rash. He's always trying to be better, but is also very generous. A natural leader among the boys his age, but just and modest all the same…"
He didn't know how much time he spent there, cosseted in their tiny nook, talking of Baelfire and watching the Lady Belle smile in wonder and gratitude, laugh at his son's antics and hang on his every word.
"He'll love you," he finished, his voice fervent "Completely. Utterly. Without question."
"You really think so?" she asked, leaning close to him. He couldn't help but reciprocate the gesture.
"I know so."
The smile that spread over her face was radiant. She leaned forward, kissing his forehead in gratitude.
"You don't know how much those words mean to me. Thank you, Rumplestiltskin."
She was gone a minute later, and he heard in the distance the voice of his other self, his future self, calling her name. He dug his fingers into the unfinished carving, picked up the knife, and focused again on the task at hand.
From then on it the spinner recognized it was futile and impossible to avoid Belle and with every day that passed he found himself less and less willing to do so. He had limited time with her, soon they would be gone, and he'd be back in his little cottage, raising a son on his own as the village coward. He'd take whatever he could have and be grateful for it.
It was also inevitable for Gold to corner him one day, an unamused little smirk playing about his features.
"I don't like you very much, dearie but, then again, this can hardly come as a surprise. You don't like yourself much either, do you?"
The spinner avoided his eyes, fighting the urge to cower in a corner.
"Oh, how easy it is to read you, to see the way you itch to run and hide like the pathetic little mouse you are. I do hate you so, I hate how I'll never be rid of you, no matter how much power I gain to try and drown out the urge to beg for mercy…" Gold paused, as if realizing he was over-sharing and regrouped "What I mean to say is… I will not begrudge you your time with Belle. Whatever is between you doesn't change the fact that when it's all said and done she will leave with me, and you will forget her," at the spinner's shocked expression he elaborated "We cannot change the past, dearie. This, all of this, will be forgotten by all of you. It's necessary, lest we jeopardize the proper flow of time. I just thought you should know."
He thought that was the last he'd see of Gold, but two days later he woke him in the middle of the night, looking solemn.
"I need a favour of sorts," he said, cutting to the chase "As you know there is some… bad blood to clear up between Jones and I. Sadly Belle doesn't quite trust me to have a private conversation with the man without accidentally… turning him into a snail and stepping on him… Or something to that effect. Tonight might be the only chance left for a little discussion with the good captain, but my dear Belle is… a light sleeper," something dark took hold of his other self, and the spinner had to dig his staff into the floor to prevent himself from taking a step back "There was some… unpleasantness back in the day. She got taken away from me, locked away in the dark, alone, for a long time. Ever since then she's been prone to… bad dreams. If she wakes up alone she grows terrified, and I can't put her through it. But if, let us say, someone just like me where to be by her side, then she'd be safe, and I'd be free to… Hash things out with the good Captain."
Rumplestiltskin wasn't sure he could have ever denied a man like Gold anything, but the idea of refusing the request never crossed his mind. He did feel a twinge of guilt at the thought of deceiving someone as kind-hearted as Belle, but he couldn't deny himself the opportunity being handed to him on a silver platter. He knew soon, maybe even in the morrow, Gold and Belle would leave, and he'd forget everything. He had little to lose. For once in his life he was ready to be brave.
Belle barely stirred as he slid into bed, but she did roll over as soon as he settled, curling on his side like an overgrown cat. The spinner closed his eyed and inhaled deeply, delicately nuzzling his nose into the woman's hair, turning on his side to burrow closer to her. Gold had specifically told him to be as tactile as possible so he slid his arms around her small waist, trying to control his ragged breathing so it wouldn't disturb her sleep. She wrapped herself around him with a small sigh of contentment, tangling her legs with his. He did not dare to sleep, lest he miss out on the completely foreign experience of being held lovingly. It didn't matter if she thought he was someone else, he'd find solace in the knowledge that one day, centuries from now, he'd be hers and she would be his.
"Rum…" he voice, rough from sleep, sent shivers down his spine. She stretched beside him, rubbing against his side only to curl around him once more "Is it safe?"
He had no idea what she meant. Had she perhaps had a bad dream, like Gold had warned him, and now sought his assurance that she was not in danger?
"Yes, sweetheart." he replied, trying his best to sound soothing and Gold-like. He felt Belle smile against the skin of his neck before she carded a hand through his hair and used it to guide his face towards her in the dark. She kissed him then, not languid peck on the lips or a sleepy joining of mouths but a deep, devouring kiss, her tongue delving into his mouth at his gasp of surprise. He'd never been kissed. With Milah it had always been him the one to kiss her and seldom had he been granted access to her mouth. She had complained enough about his clumsy tongue and his awkward movements to desist from anything but the tiniest of gestures, often feeling like he ought to apologize afterwards. But Belle, far from refusing his touch, sought it, pressing herself close against him, the fingers of one hand in his hair like she was afraid he'd pull away, the other hand clutching at his back, drawing soothing patterns on his lower back. He sighed into the kiss, letting her do with him as she wished, happy to concentrate in the taste of her. Her tongue seemed to know every spot in his mouth that would cause his eyes to roll to the back of head when licked or stroked, and he couldn't help but press her closer, desperately wishing she was his to keep, his to sleep beside every night and kiss every day.
She nipped at his lip and coyly sought his tongue with hers, trying to get him to return the favour and thoroughly ravish her mouth. He felt ashamed at his clumsy attempts to mimic her actions, but the small noises she made on the back of her throat spoke to some primal part of him, a part that told him that he had to be doing something right.
When they parted, trading tiny, sipping kisses long after the ardour died down, Belle closed her eyes, muttered a sleepy "Love you, Rum" and dozed off again, leaving the poor spinner to whisper "Me too" into the crown of her hair. It was two hours later that Gold knocked on the door, ready to relieve him of his duty. If he suspected something had happened he made no mention of it, only looked at him with an unreadable expression and curtly thanked him for covering for him.
Belle's arms around him as she hugged him goodbye felt like heaven and hell. He could hear her sniffling, but it gave him little joy to see her regret his departure.
"Take care of yourself. Please."
She kissed his forehead and retreated, going see that nothing was left on the ship that could be linked to them. All of the crew had been placed in a trance-like state, fake memories of their journeys awaiting then when they came to. The spinner had seen the magician place each and everyone of them under that thrall and so took several steps back when his older self approached him.
"I don't want to forget. Please," he did not care that, unlike his better older self, he was reduced to begging and pleading. He'd do it, he'd sink to his knees and kiss the man's boot if it meant he could keep the memory of Belle with him.
"It is not possible, dearie. You know that."
He grew defiant then, in his small way.
"I love her."
He didn't care if he'd known her for little over a week. He was sure of what he was saying. He loved her, just as he knew he loved Bae. Those were the great truths of his life.
"I know," Gold regarded him with speculative eyes "I often wondered, when I first met Belle, was drew me to her instantly. Acquiring her never made any sense. It didn't fit my plans, didn't serve any purpose. It was an impulsive act, one I never fully understood. Now I wonder…" he looked into his former self's eyes, a sort of understanding in them "True love is a powerful form of magic, one that cannot be undone, merely hidden or disguised. You may forget Belle, but I doubt I'd ever be able to erase her completely from you. I imagine you'll carry a small, vague ghost of a memory, a secret tucked away to emerge when the moment comes."
The spinner considered the words carefully.
"It's enough." he said at last, surrendering to the pull of Gold's magic as it washed over him.
"It's gonna have to be, dearie."
And then, suddenly, there was darkness, and nothing more.