A/N:

If anyone cares, I have a big explanation as to the timeline of this story located in my author's note at the end. I think it works okay without explaining, but I wanted to clear up some questions that might be raised. :) AND a huge thanks, as always, to Anti-Kryptonite taking time to beta this for me! She's a huge encouragement and just generally filled with awesome. She also catches my tense errors and helps me make my endings less muddled. Kudos, love – and if anyone hasn't read her stuff yet, go now.


The Taste of Magic

He comes in through the double glass doors at precisely 7:25 AM, jacketless and smelling of a hundred nameless chemicals, and she does her best to ignore the rising tension in her stomach. For a moment she wants to be sick— she can't even look at him—and her mouth tastes like bile and betrayal and defeat and hopelessness. The unmistakable flavour of magic.

His smile never falters as he closes the door behind him. "You're early," he says, meeting her eyes for the first time.

She stands from the sofa and passes from patterned carpet to immaculate polished hardwood. Leaning against the counter beside the stove, cool granite on bare arms providing a much-needed barrier between them, she says, "I wanted to surprise you."

"Ah," he says, with rock-steady calm. "You succeeded."

She gives a little half-shrug. "I saw you were out and figured you were… busy. So I just got things ready."

His eyes follow hers and he surveys the layout of food on the island countertop – the eggs and milk and vegetables all laid out beside their respective bowls and chopping boards—and grabs a bottle of orange juice from the fridge. He sets it down amidst the other ingredients, picks up two glasses from the cupboard beside him, and fills them to the top.

He crosses the room without spilling a single drop, three limp-steps from the island to her. "That was very thoughtful, Belle," he says, and holds out the glass.

For a moment she can see the appeal in cowardice.

For a moment it seems so easy. To abandon a fool's errand and take solace in books and dusting and the solitude of a quiet room. To storm away and leave him alone with his spells and an unfinished omelette spread out across his countertop. But in the end, 'easy' would be no good for either of them. Her hands and her heart stage a mutiny against her brain, and she takes the glass. Mumbles a thank-you.

And she is trying to be patient and understanding, just as hard as he is (supposedly) trying to be a brave, dependable man for her. So she sips it to coat the taste of magic with bitter orange, to keep her feet from carrying her away again, and smiles.

"So how's—" she pauses to take another sip of juice, sets the glass down on the countertop with a 'clink' of glass against polished stone, "—how's the magic going, anyway?"

He turns to face her, now half-way across the kitchen with a green apron hanging from his neck, wearing a look of utter surprise. He raises his eyebrows and presses his lips together in a rather exaggerated show of consideration, shakes his head briefly, and says, "It's going fine." He hangs his cane on the back of the nearest kitchen chair and begins to tie the apron around his waist. He stands at the island in the center of the kitchen, in front of a pile of vegetables gathered around a plastic cutting board, and begins sharpening a knife against a chef's steel. "Slowly, but that's hardly surprising."

"You've… been down there a lot, lately."

"No more than usual."

"Your shop's been closed for days."

"Business has been slow." He offers her a thin, patient smile. It comes across as dismissive. "I doubt it's much of an inconvenience to anyone."

It's not a lie (he's too clever for that, too endlessly careful to be caught in his own web) – but it's not the truth, either. And it breaks her heart.

Rallying her strength, Belle rounds the counter. The rasp of metal on metal grows uncomfortably loud as she approaches, and she has to raise her voice to be heard. "Rumplestiltskin…" The knife falls silent; a crease appears between his brows. He knows what she's about to ask. (Or at least suspects.) She can see the tension in his shoulders and the resignation behind his eyes; his unwavering stare - so intense that it makes her heart race from across the room - conceals all secrets.

She looks at him, though she can only hold her gaze in place for a brief second.

She wants to give him the benefit of the doubt. (But he's been avoiding her, crossing the street to avoid the library, head lowered and eyes locked on the pavement stones.) She wants to just ignore the ominous glow from his cellar window. (But he's been down there the better part of three days, and his shop's been closed and he hasn't answered his phone.)

She wants to trust him. But she can't.

Because he hasn't been looking for Bae. Not for several weeks, at least. (Not since his warmth towards her had frozen over like a midwinter lake – and instead of smiling at her because they were sharing secrets, he had turned away because he was keeping them.) He's been doing… something else.

So she splits her focus between his impassive face and a green pepper on the counter, and asks the question that's been gnawing at her gut like a sickness. The question that invades her nights in the lonely librarian's quarters and troubles her sleep. A question to which she fears she already knows the answer. "You haven't been looking for your son, have you?"

To his credit, he makes no attempt to deny the accusation. He tests the knife on his thumb, running the edge across his skin with a gentle scraping sound. Then he begins to slice the pepper. His movements are deliberate, slow and careful, and when he has sliced the pepper in half and removed the seeds, he quietly says, "No."

That single word seems to stumble from his mouth like a laboured pack animal, dropping lifelessly to the floor under the terrible burden of his admission.

"Oh," Belle says.

When she'd played through this conversation in her mind, it never ended well—but it had also never ended like this. In her mind's eye, he had reacted a thousand ways: angry, suspicious, guilty, disappointed, conniving. But he'd never deflated in front of her, like what happens now—an almost visible shrinking, like the truth had flicked open an artery and now he was bleeding out onto the floor.

"My hand has been forced, Belle," he says. "Another matter requires my rather urgent attention." He takes a deep breath, turning the half green pepper over in his hands. "Bae will have to wait."

"What-?" Her mind reels with the implication of his statement. It must be terribly serious. "What 'matter'?"

"I'd rather not say."

"Rumple—" her feet carry her across the kitchen, and she stands next to him, and her hands are on his forearms, smoothing the material of his deep purple shirt against his skin, "—you can tell me. Maybe I can help you. We can solve this problem and then we can find him, together."

"You can't help."

"I can try, can't I?"

"No." The word is quiet but harsh, sharp as the knife on the counter.

She frowns, hands tightening on his arms. "And why not?"

"Because," he says, and his voice is unexpectedly loud, loud enough to startle her, loud enough to knock her a single-step backwards if she hadn't been gripping his arms so tightly. He pulls away from her, palms flat on the counter, edging his way to the kitchen chair where his cane hangs in tranquil readiness. He reaches out to it and it seems to spring into his palm—though whether this is magic or merely practiced ease borne of twenty-eight years, she cannot tell. Taking his weight without complaint, the cane pulls him to the window and he stands before it like a sentry, a man of sharp angles bathed in the pale gold of early morning light.

"Because?"

A moment of silence, tension clearly visible in the lines of his back. His hands flexing on the head of his cane, white-knuckled. "Because I think someone may be trying to kill you."

She blinks. Except for her continued breathing, the roar of her heartbeat now pounding in her ears, she would think time had stopped a second time. Even Rumplestiltskin is still, immobile, unmoving except for the motion of his thumb rubbing the golden head of his cane. She bites her lip and takes a hesitant step forward. If he notices, he gives no indication.

"Why?" she asks. Before she has time to think, her feet carry her across the floor. She's close to him now, close enough to reach out and place a hand on his shoulder.

"Because I once took something very precious from him. And if I am correct, he intends to return the favour."

Close enough that her words reach his ears, though she can barely hear them herself. "What will you do?"

He turns, eyes are dark, half-lidded – she can almost see the emotion behind them, fury and determination and fear swirling like lazy tendrils of smoke. "Anything I can to keep you safe."

"I mean about him." She pauses, shaking her head. "No. I mean to him."

He quirks his eyebrows as if surprised. His expression shifts, and he tucks the smoulder of emotion deeper within himself, hiding it behind a mask of confidence and sickly-sweet assurances. His lips are pulled back— open in that smile he wears while spinning half-truths. (That smile that is not quite a smile because his eyes are trying to console her and deceive her and she doesn't believe a word he says next.) "I haven't really thought about it, dear."

He's been thinking of little else, she imagines.

Giving her a brief flicker of a smile, he steps around her and heads back towards the island counter. "Do you want tomato in your omelette?"

"Rumplestiltskin."

Her voice drags him to a halt, reluctantly, like a horse pulled out of full gallop by a stern rider. He turns and looks at her—eyes almost clear of their fog (of barely veiled rage and thoughts of violence). Almost looking at her instead of through her. "Mmm?"

"Stop him, Rumple. Please do. Just… be careful. This will consume you if you let it." Her hands itch for a job (to smooth the soft skin on the back of his hands, to straighten his tie or fiddle with the buttons on his cuff, to flip pages of a book or straighten the knickknacks on his shelf.) She lets them drop to her side and pushes wrinkles from the pleats of her skirt. "Saving my life won't be worth anything if I lose you because of it."

"Belle, don't worry. He can't hurt me."

"That's not what I'm worried about."

"I'll be careful." His voice is soft and his smile is back and his eyebrows edge up towards his hairline. "I'll be careful, hey?"

She nods. Suddenly, she feels very small. Exposed. Eyes stinging with tears that are quite ready to fall, she covers her mouth with her hand and says, "I'm frightened." (It is a secret, and it's not easy to admit, but she can't be brave forever.)

"Don't be." Two steps forward, and he folds her into a short but warm embrace. He pulls back slightly to rub the tears from her cheeks with his thumb. "This is why I didn't want to tell you—" .

"No—you should have. You did the right thing. I'm glad I know. I want to know."

"Well, now you do. And you have nothing to worry about." He looks worried enough for the both of them. Stepping out of the embrace (though he keeps her hand enclosed tightly in his own), he guides them to the counter. He picks up his knife and begins to slice a tomato. The topic is no longer open for discussion. "I'll make you some breakfast."

"We'll both help."

And so they do. Staving off the awkward weight in the air with work, they set to fixing breakfast.

In silence, Belle prepares the egg and milk mixture, adding salt and pepper, whisking it together into a frothy white-yellow blend. Rumplestiltskin divides his attention between the chopping board and the stove, lighting the element with a push of the button (gas, not magic, he assures her), rummaging through immaculately organized cupboards to pull down a cast-iron frying pan. Conversation usually settles so easily between them – but having a potential price on her head seems to outweigh any other pertinent topics and they cook in relative quiet.

When the omelettes are ready for assembly, liquid egg poured onto the frying pan and sizzling, Belle is left with nothing to do but sip her orange juice. And think.

A question sprouts in her mind.

She doesn't want to keep pushing him – doesn't want to continually pry into his secrets, digging them from him like a pit out of a cherry, leaving her hands stained red… but this is an answer she deserves. She is involved with this threatening man, perhaps more closely than anyone else.

Curiosity overpowers her, and when she finishes her juice, she places her glass in her sink and shatters the silence with a single sentence.

"What's his name?"

Rumplestiltskin doesn't answer. Perhaps he won't. She suspects he may ask her for more cheese, or brush past her for the bowl of chopped tomatoes without response. But after a moment, he brushes his hands on his greenish apron. "Jones," he says. "His name was – is – Killian Jones. And I pray you will never have to meet him."

"Killian Jones."

"Yes. Although, if the rumours are correct, he now goes by a somewhat more... colourful moniker." He turns from the cooking omelettes to look at her. "And to answer any of your other questions, he's tall, dark… and not as handsome as he seems to think."

"And he can hold a grudge."

"He can indeed."

The way he says it—he sounds almost sad. He opens his mouth as if to speak, tongue flicking across his lips in a rare display of nerves, and turns his back to her once more. But not before revealing a flash of hidden memories, another secret he is not yet willing to divulge. As he nudges the cooking eggs with his spatula, she wonders how precious the thing was that Rumplestiltskin had taken – wonders absently how much of this entire mess is his fault, how much of it is really an unprovoked attack, what pain motivates the revenge that has driven this stranger (Killian Jones) to seek her life.

She feels a curious stir of pity for a man she's (to the best of her knowledge) never met.

She carries bowls of vegetables from the island and sets them beside Rumplestiltskin, on the counter beside the stove. She crosses to the opposite side of the counter so she can face him while they speak. "Will you make a deal with me?" she asks.

He turns from the frying pan in surprise. "You don't need to make deals, Belle. You only ever have to ask."

"No—I think I want to."

He looks at her curiously. The unasked why is plain on his face.

She bites her lip. "You never break your agreements." She knows the words have to hurt, even as she says them. But she owes him the truth, after all her talk of honesty.

He blinks once, and shifts his weight slightly forward against the counter, but otherwise gives no other reaction. Nodding slowly, he takes on a thoughtful intrigue. "These sorts of… business transactions… involve a certain amount of give and take. You name your price. I'll name mine." He held out his two hands and tilted them up and down as if balancing a scale. "Are you prepared for that?"

She nods.

"I'm listening." She hears dearie after the line and imagines a flourish of gold-grey fingers, whether he intends it or not.

"I don't want you going after revenge," she says. "Do what you have to—to stop this Killian, to keep me safe— but then, let it go."

He chews on her offer for a moment, a gourmet enjoying a slice of rare steak. "That sounds a reasonable request." He rolls the 'r's slightly, and she smiles.

"Good. And your price?"

He take his time in answering, filling the omelettes with vegetables and folding them neatly. He pours a few droplets of water onto the pan (from a small measuring cup he fills at the sink) and covers it with a lid to allow the steam to build. "I want," he says, as he turns the heat down on the stove, "unrestricted license." He looks up, meets her eyes. "I get carte blanche to do what I must, when I must, how I must. And you will let me."

She must have hesitated, because he holds up one hand, palm out, and presses the other to his heart. "I promise I will honour the deal. And not just to the letter—to the heart of it." This is a new promise, a nearly air-tight promise. She nods, slowly. "I will let him live, if I can," he says. Funny, how the word 'can' sounds suddenly identical to 'must'. "I will not torture him, I will not maim him." He plants a hand on the counter and leans forward, bracing his weight against the polished granite. "If I kill him, it will be quick."

"No repeats of the Regina incident."

His mouth tightens at the corner and he looks away. "No. No repeats."

She slides her hand over his. "Thank you, for understanding."

He pulls it away and holds up a finger. "Ah-ah, I'm not finished yet."

Her stomach twists at the hungry look in his eyes.

"I agree to everything on one condition," he says.

"What's that?"

The trappings of Mister Gold seem to unravel quickly, though his skin is smooth and his eyes very much a man's. His lips pull back to reveal gold-plated teeth. "If I fail, Belle," his voice is deep, but she can hear the deal-maker behind its low tones, "if anything happens to you… the deal is broken." He waves his spatula horizontally in front of his chest, a flat-bladed axe splitting the air down the middle.

He lifts the lid and flips omelettes onto plates with a dexterity she has never seen him display in Storybrooke, and he continues, speaking faster than she expects. "It won't, of course. Nothing will. I'll do everything in my not insubstantial power to keep you from harm – but if it does…" he pauses to rummage in the nearest drawer for cutlery, pulling out forks and knives and laying them neatly on the plates beside the plates of food.

She can see the tension radiate off his body, like the steam from the omelettes, almost vibrating through him. The smell of magic cuts through the air, magic like ozone, like baking bread and lightning crackling in every corner of her senses. His every movement drips of malice and his knuckles are white and his teeth are bared. "If it does, I'll make him pay."

She wonders if he expects her to cower. She almost wants to.

He rounds the corner and, though he looks directly at her (eyes as dark and hard as polished granite), his thoughts travel a dark and distant path. "I swear I will make him suffer every day of his life—and if he harms you, Belle, Captain Jones will be living a long time."

Eyes wide, heart aching because every word is a knife, sharp edged reminders of the broken shards of his soul, she places a hand on his chest. Fingers splayed against a heart beating too-fast, staring into pupils dilated too-wide, she shakes her head slowly and says, "Please, Rumple…"

The light fades from his eyes, and the bravado melts away. She has disarmed him like a master swordsman, and now he stands exposed, fragile and pretending so very hard to emulate an unfeeling monster. He left his cane on the other side of the counter and so he stands at an angle, bad-knee slightly bent and resting all his weight on his other leg.

"I wish you wouldn't say things like that."

She looks up into his face and sees pain looking back: sharper than the anger, the fear, the lust for power.

"Then stay with me, Belle. And I'll never have to."

They stand a moment in uncomfortable silence—and then his fingers twitch and he's saying "Come here, darling…" in a fragmented, gentle voice she can barely hear. She steps forward into his embrace… because she needs to feel him, feel his reality, feel the strength of his arms wrapped around her and the gentle tug of his fingers through her hair. Because, despite it all, the thought of being apart is nearly too much to bear. Because she loves him.

He presses a lingering kiss to her forehead.

She buries her face in his chest, and he smells more like egg than magic, of cologne and fresh laundry soap.

They eat cold omelettes at precisely 8:17 AM, and strike no deals.


A/N:

First of all, thanks so much to everyone for reading and reviewing my other stuff! I have 17 faves and 10 reviews on my last oneshot and that makes me gleefully happy. I appreciate the support a ton.

And now timeline!explanation:

So, since Once Upon a Time was kind enough to progress the plot and ruin my head!canon before I could get this posted, this oneshot might need a bit of authorial explanation. I apologize. If it were part of a longer story I'd rely on the writing itself to explain, but it's really only one scene and Belle is not in the mood for inner exposition. haha.

So infodumping comes now, ladies and gents.

I first came up with this oneshot right after The Crocodile. Although I hoped that Emma and Mary Margaret wouldn't take too long to come back (at least in terms of episode numbers), in my head!canon it was quite some time before everyone figured it all out. Maybe a few months, at least. During this time, the Rumbelle relationship would have its ups and downs and this just happens to be a bit of a rough patch during their healing.

The other major stressor is that, when I saw Gold interrogating Smee at the end of 2x04, I immediately imagined him going into full-crazy-save-Belle mode. He's a smart guy and he knows revenge well enough to wager a pretty educated guess that Hook would go after her if/when he arrives on the scene. They also haven't heard word about Cora yet, so Hook is the main baddie on Rumple's mind. So in this he's been through a few somewhat-dubious avenues to ensure that Hook could be taken care of. Thus, relational strain.

I also wanted to play with the idea of Belle... being weaker, for once. Not for long - this isn't like a "we're going to break up stage", in my mind. It's just... hard. And she's tired. She's confused and lonely and really fighting to keep the cynicism away. I know she's optimistic and forgiving, but I always imagined that there are some days she has to really really work at keeping that up. And I hadn't seen too too many fics where Belle's been caught on a down day to this extent, so I wanted to explore it a little. Something where she's... not in the wrong, per say, but not as strong or brave as she usually is.

Anyway, if you made it through this beast of a long author's note, you get virtual cookies. Thanks for all the support! You guys are a fantastic fandom to be a part of. :D