A/N: So, this story is pretty much dedicated to my fantastic beta-reader and friend, Roberre, without whom I never would have even tried to write this kind of story. If you like it, it's because I taught myself a lot off of her writing, and if you don't like it, it's because I really failed at it and you should go give her stories a try. :) Also, thank you to everyone who reads and follows my stories and sends me such encouraging notes and PMs in between postings - you don't know how much it means to me, and writer or not, I can't really put it into words! Just thank you, I very much appreciate it all - and a definite thanks for everyone who nominated my stories for the T.E.A.! I hope you all enjoy this story, and I'd love to hear what you think of it!
Disclaimer: Skin Deep, The Outsider, and In The Name Of The Brother are quoted throughout the story; they were written by others and don't belong to me. No copyright infringement is intended.
He tells her jokes. And then he stares at her, confused and uncertain, when she laughs. She wonders how old he is. She wonders how long it's been since someone has been there to laugh at his jokes, to chuckle over the expressions that cross his mobile features at the slightest of things, to smile when he does something spontaneously kind.
She wonders how long he's been alone.
He watches her, out of the corner of his eye, always with a chipped cup or threads of transforming straw in his hands, like a shield kept constantly between them. He watches her, and he follows her from room to room, hall to tower, garden to kitchen, always with an excuse ready, always with that strange look in his eyes. But he avoids her just as adeptly, just as avidly, always staying just out of reach, as if he is afraid of her.
No one has ever been afraid of her before. No one has ever watched her as if she is fascinating and unknowable. No one has ever listened so intently to what she has to say.
After a while, when she doesn't run away and doesn't scream at him in fear and doesn't cast hatred and derision his way, he begins to talk to her. Never for long. Never anything too serious. But a comment here and a question there and a tentative joke that makes her laugh, which in turn makes him stop and cock his head and peer at her as if she is a mystery. The comments become observations, the questions become conversations, and the tentative jokes become witty, self-conscious humor he begins to show off more and more in front of her, delight appearing in his eyes like startled, fledgling hope.
She moves from the end of the table to the middle of the table at teatimes, telling him she doesn't like to walk so far with china in her hands when he is so fond of startling her. He moves from his spinning wheel to the fireside in the evenings when she brings out the books he so freely lets her borrow.
The deal he made called for a caretaker, but slowly, gradually, as days turn into weeks turn into months, she realizes that he doesn't want a housekeeper. He wants a companion.
She wonders if he knows that. She wonders if he realizes how lonely he is.
She begins to perch on the edge of the table just in front of his chair, looking down at him, close enough to see the smallest of changes in the shimmering features, the flickers of incomprehensibly deep emotions in complex eyes. He begins to stare back, blatantly, unabashedly, no longer sneaking speculative, sidelong glances.
She tells herself she is only humoring him, learning about him, giving him someone who will listen and respond to him. She tells herself she is simply being kind and there is no one else to talk to, after all. But slowly, gradually, as hesitant overtures turn into casual conversations turn into breathless interactions, she realizes that she isn't humoring him. She is befriending him.
She wonders why that no longer seems like enough. She wonders if he feels the same way.
When her hand brushes against his, he doesn't draw back. When she smiles at him, he smiles back. When she finds herself counting the colors in his compelling eyes, he doesn't look away.
She wonders if he is happy.
She touches him. And she smiles, confident and happy, when he lets her. When he turns his hand to weave his fingers through with hers. When he can't help but smile a bit at the feel of her warmth merging with his. He wonders if she knows what it does to him, to have someone willing to touch him. Someone who wants to touch him.
He wonders how long it will last.
She watches him, sometimes, a tiny smile hiding in the corners of her mouth. She watches him and follows him and walks at his side and brings him lunches in picnic baskets. She listens to whatever he can bring himself to tell her and she defends him when murder accusations are tossed his way and always she comes back to him.
No one has ever come back before. No one wants to spend time with him. No one loves him.
But she does. And he cannot help but watch her in return, waiting for the moment when she condemns him as a monster. She left him once already, told him she didn't want to see him and walked away, as if it were easy. As if a life where they are apart is something she can conceive of, something she can comprehend. He watches and he waits and he fears, but sometimes, when he doesn't keep up his guard, he forgets to be afraid. Sometimes he forgets everything but the sparkle in her eyes when she looks at him and the sound of her voice when she says his name and the feel of her hand on his. Sometimes he starts imagining they will be like this forever.
He tells her about Bae, reaches for her hand and feels his heart leap as if it can dance when she meets him halfway. She tells him about an adventure with a yaoguai, smiles and shifts closer to him before he can do more than look away at the knowledge that she has broken curses for princes as well as for beasts.
This town has been a necessary evil for so long, a stepping stone along the path leading to his son. But now she is here, and suddenly, all at once, in the space of a heartbeat and a breath and the blink of an eye, it comes to life and color and sound all around him. She walks down a street and makes it important, shops at a store and makes it a place he knows of, speaks of someone she met and makes them real to him.
He wonders if she knows that he can't imagine life without her anymore, again. He wonders if she can imagine life without him.
She is there, smiling and happy and alive, every time he needs her, every time he turns around, every time he looks for her. He is there, too, never able to keep his distance, never able to be aloof, not when she can pull him so close, a sun drawing his orbit always, always around her.
His life has been a certain way for so long, so very long, dark and fixed and careful. But now she is part of his life and suddenly, all at once, in the space of a smile and a voice offering forgiveness and arms slipping around him, it is brighter and happier and fuller and a bit more hopeful. Suddenly, there is less planning and more action, less regret and more acceptance, less fear and more courage. He thought there was no hope for him, nothing beyond apologizing to his son and maybe losing him all over again. Now, though, there is more. So much more.
He wonders if these touches she gives him are signs that she doesn't want her distance anymore. He wonders if the truths he gives her so trustingly are signs that he doesn't want to keep anything from her.
When he drops by the library to see her, she smiles and invites him in. When he asks her to lunch, she accepts without hesitating. When he holds open his arms, she steps forward to hug him.
He wonders if that means she's happy.
The curtains are heavy and thick and suffocating, barricades that shut out the world and keep him safe within. She tugs on them with small, strong hands and feels them shiver, but still they don't give. He stands below her, puzzled and incredulous, and it makes her laugh because smart as he is, he doesn't seem to realize that he brought her here exactly for this reason. She tugs again, pulls first one way and then another, but it isn't until she puts her entire weight, everything that she is, into the effort that the curtains budge.
She falls and falls, so far and so fast, everything solid and grounding torn away from her.
He catches her.
He is warm and obviously strong, his arms cradling her next to his body as if she is one of his valuable, irreplaceable treasures, but it is the shimmering colors, the shifting expressions, the stirring emotions evident on his face that snatch her attention so surely she can't even breathe, something small and sharp and hot catching hold of her heart.
It takes him a long time to turn away from the blinding sunlight to look at her, but when he does, she feels heavy and weightless, hot and cold, numb and afire all at once, a shifting mélange of so many contradictions that she wonders, for a perilous instant, if this is what it's like to be him. He is kindness and danger, deals that steal away her future and arms that save her from death, wicked confidence and timid uncertainty, childlike mischief and incomprehensible manipulation. He is too much and everything all molded into a single being and dialogued and defined and tempered to a sharp point only he can understand.
But she is trying.
"Thank you," she says, and her words break the spell.
He sets her down, drops her as quickly as if she is chaos and fire. He stands there awkwardly, shrugs off her thanks as if he has never received gratitude before. He rubs his fingers against his thumb as if he is only now discovering the sensation of touch.
She brushes her hands down her skirts, but she knows it won't erase the moment. She offers to put back the walls and barricades he built around himself and she tore down without considering what it might do to her to be so close to what is unveiled. She falls still and silent, breathless and bold, wide-eyed and wonderstruck, when he turns back to her.
"I'll get used to it," he says, and his words cast a spell over her.
Once, she dreamed of a life very different from the one he's given her. Once, she wished to see the world and seek adventure and become a hero. Once, she thought independence would be the greatest of gifts.
Now, her dreams transform in front of her eyes, as easily, as effortlessly, as ephemerally as the straw he transforms into gold beneath clever fingers.
He caught her, and she begins to dream of a life in his arms. He tells her of the family he lost, and she begins to wish that she could be his family, that she could ease the sadness in his immortal eyes, that she could rescue him from the darkness he draws about him like cloak and costume and armor. He sets her free, and she can think only of returning to him.
Deals are sacred to him; they are binding and unbreakable. But he broke their deal. For her.
The castle doors close behind her, and she wants to turn and bang her fist against them until they open and let her flee back to him. She walks away from her lifetime of servitude, and she has to fight back tears at the thought of never seeing him again.
She wants to turn back, but she does not. Because, for the first time, she is afraid.
When she fell, he caught her. But if he were to fall…could she catch him?
The phone-call is short and distant and garbled, but more than sufficient to birth panic and terror and deep, vast protectiveness that has lain dormant and untapped since fairies and cowardice stole his son away from him. He reaches for magic with greedy, desperate hands, and his shop transforms around him into the library he gave Belle. She isn't there, instead trapped behind closed doors that once led a savior to a dragon, and not being able to see her makes him frantic and clumsy. He reaches out with hands empty of his cane and full of a coat he can't remember grabbing, but it isn't until he tosses more magic outward that the doors open to release her.
He lets out a breath, life and hope returned to him, his panic quenched, his terror banked.
She throws herself into his arms.
She trembles and shakes and never has she clung to him so tightly, so desperately, her breath hot and ragged against his throat, but it is the rapid pace of her heartbeat against his that makes it impossible for him to think, to plan, to wonder at the ramifications of the pirate appearing here in Storybrooke.
It takes her a long moment before she pulls away to look around, a quick, searching glance that encompasses the library she should be able to feel safe in, and her wide eyes and stuttering breaths pierce him straight through armored defenses he's spent long centuries perfecting. She is afraid and unsure, and he has never seen her like this before; the coat he settles around her shoulders does nothing at all to protect her and yet it is all he has to give her, all the comfort he can provide. He doesn't know how to offer courage when he has none of his own to give.
But he tries.
"You have nothing to fear—I'm here now," he says, and his words allay her fear.
She throws her arms around him again, as if she is drowning and he is all that can save her. She presses close to him, as if she is frozen and he is the only warmth to be had. She whispers his name against his throat, as if it is a talisman that can comfort her no matter what assails her.
He holds her as tightly as he can, but he knows it isn't enough to combat terror. He promises he will protect her, but he knows the vow is worthless and inadequate—comfort offered by a man she knows all too well is a coward. He falls still and silent, terrified and tremulous, disbelieving and desperate, when she takes his hand and does not walk away even after hearing that he wasn't able to keep his wife, that he stole a man's hand, that he cannot even now tell her the last piece of this awful secret.
"You can tell me anything," she says, and her words light his terror on fire.
Once, he knew that no one could love him. Once, he vowed to love nothing aside from his son, to want nothing else, to seek nothing else. Once, he thought that if he had Bae, he'd never need anything else.
Now, his vows are broken, so easily, so effortlessly, so inescapably, like pages ripped from the books she loves so dearly.
She cradles his hand so tenderly between hers, and he knows he can't go back to a life devoid of touch. She accepts him no matter what secrets he unearths for her, and his promise morphs into something more, a vow that includes her in its binding contract, an oath that he will never leave her, never let her go. She smiles with her eyes so blinding and bright, and he cannot envision a life or a world without her.
She is never afraid; courage comes as easily to her as cowardice does to him. But she was afraid today. Because of him.
Hook is his enemy, and now he's hers too, and he could tell her why, tell her the whole sordid story, tell her what he did, but then she will look at him like the monster he is. His shop, when he opens the door, is in shambles all around him, and he could let Belle help him, but then he might lose her.
He wants to confide in her, but he can't. Because, for the first time, he can be brave and face his enemy head-on and not back down like a cowardly spinner.
Whenever he is afraid, Belle loans him her courage. So now, when she is afraid…now it is his turn to be brave for her.
She never thought she could be a hero, not really, not truly. The closest she could get was to read of them, pretend it was her in the stories painted so vividly in her imagination, drawn with strokes of black ink on white pages in multiple languages. When the day came that her people were in trouble, her family and friends endangered, she seized the chance to be heroic. But that sacrifice wasn't as great as she once thought it would be.
The road ahead of her, leading to adventure or to home or to wherever she decides to go, is long. The road behind her, leading back to home and him and her heart's insistent longing, is short.
She does not know what to do with this choice, not when she has so rarely been given the opportunity to decide her own fate, not when she had thought her future was set in stone, signed away in one of the Dark One's contracts. She knows that whatever she decides here, on this road, will truly shape her future. This time, her decision will be born of free will, without contracts or deals or her father's life on the line.
Leaving Rumplestiltskin is the wise thing to do. It is logical and prudent, to remove herself from servitude to an immortal creature of magic and darkness.
But he isn't a creature—he's a man, alone and lonely and isolated, mourning and focused, and he thinks he is a monster and has no reason not to be. He took her from her home and her family and he could have done anything with her, but he has shown her only kindness and he gave her books and laughter and attention, and for all his centuries of power and his incomprehensible genius, he looks at her as if she is special and lovely and priceless.
She walks quickly. The desire to be free, the knowledge of Rumplestiltskin's manipulative doings, the fear of what might happen to her should she give in to what she feels for him—all of these things drive her onward toward all the things she thought she wanted, all the things she can't bring herself to feel any excitement for, only dread and sadness and regret. Her heart is squeezed to something small and hard in her chest, her grip on the empty basket almost painful, as she struggles with her overwhelming desire to turn around and run and run and run until she finds herself once more in that intense, wondering embrace.
"You love your employer, but you're leaving him," says the woman she meets on the road, and Belle flinches away from the truth of that stark summary.
"All curses can be broken," she promises, and Belle feels the quickening of hope within her like a rising tide.
"If he loves you," the stranger tells her, and Belle almost cannot breathe waiting to hear spoken aloud the proof she knows he's already given her, "he would have let you go."
Freedom lies before her, vast and adventurous and exciting and so very close. But Rumplestiltskin is behind her, waiting for her to save him, knowing she will not come back, hoping even if he will not admit it that she will.
She is not a hero, not a fearless champion.
But she could be Rumplestiltskin's hero.
She chooses her fate, and buys his straw.
He knows he is not a good man, knows he has never been a good man. He wanted to be, once, thought he could be if only he could be brave enough to save his son; and he has seen heroes, helped men like Emma's charming father become heroes, watched them from afar and sneered at their efforts even while secretly admiring them—but he has never been one of them, never been brave enough to be one of them. When Belle came back to him, when she was alive and kissing him and asking him to eat hamburgers with her, he thought that maybe he could learn to pretend to be good, could borrow bits and pieces of noble qualities as easily as he had borrowed mannerisms and quirks from all the assorted villains he had met over his centuries of life. But it is harder than he ever thought it would be.
Hook lies beneath him, begging to be killed, and in his eyes rest the specters of taunts and beatings and terrible lies that were actually truths, specters he could finally put behind him once and for all. But Belle stands beside him, fixed in place, his son's shawl in her hands, and she tells him that she sees good in him, that she believes in him.
He does not think there is any going back from this decision. He thinks that maybe this is the fork in the road he thought he'd never get to find again, not after choosing wrong the last time and letting Bae slide away into what might as well have been oblivion. Yet here he stands, the scent of blood etched into the air, the sound of Belle's voice carried straight to his heart by tossing winds.
Killing Hook is easy. It's right, even, to rid the world of a pirate with only selfishness and vindictiveness and death to offer.
But she stands there, good and brilliant, dressed in the color of the magic he wields, brave and defiant no matter how the wind howls at her. She stands there and she looks at him, here at his worst—cowardly husband merged with vengeful Dark One, all intent on ripping and tearing and destroying—and she does not run. She does not condemn him. She does not leave him.
He trembles on the brink. Centuries of habit, decades of resentment and hatred, moments that were some of the worst of his life—all begging him to curl his fingers forward over a heart, tear it from the chest where it is doing no one any good, crush it to dust and finally put an end to this ugly chapter of his tragic life. His fingers burn and itch, every muscle in his body as taut as the ropes around him to keep him motionless as he struggles to think, to plan, to regain control.
"There's still good in you," she tells him, and he cannot understand how she can say still when there was never anything good to begin with.
"I see it—I've always seen it," she says, and he does not know how.
"Please," she pleads, and he hates that his lovely, strong Belle must beg for anything. "Please show me that I'm not wrong."
Hook lies beneath him, seconds away from death. Belle stands beside him, only the span of an extended hand between them.
He is not a good man, not really, not truly.
But he wants to be.
He takes Belle's hand, and leaves his past behind.
He's happy to see her. His fingers shake on his wheel, and for the first time, his movements are clumsy rather than graceful. His shaken composure fills her with confidence that astonishes her, the dazed happiness in his eyes and the smirk he manages to conjure send sparks shooting through her, and she cannot help but reach out to touch him, move to lean into his space, get as near him as she can.
She should be afraid, but she isn't.
Bravery isn't as hard as she thought it would be, not when his melancholy seems to have disappeared and the unevenness of his breathing, the way he lets her pluck the thread from his hand, prove that he did want her to come back. He does feel something for her, and she knows that she feels more for him than she's ever felt before, something new and different and exciting—and who is to say it is not love?
It must be, because she could be free right now, running for far distant lands and exciting adventures, but instead she is here, sitting at his side, touching him because she thinks that if she stops, he will distance himself and flee from her. She sits here, and she looks up at him, and she is happy. There is a nervous fluttering in the pit of her stomach, and she can hardly breathe at all, but she asks him about his son anyway.
"True love's kiss will break any curse."
It will work, she knows, and she is elated and scared and bold all at once. He does not realize, yet, doesn't know that she will save him. That he will be free of his curse forever. She will kiss him and the darkness will be driven from his soul and then it will be just them. Him and her and the whole future spreading out before them full of promise and hope and love.
"An ordinary man."
But what if it doesn't work? What if she kisses him and he laughs? What if she is nothing more than a caretaker he acquired in a deal, nothing more than a foolish girl whose idealism outweighs her common sense?
"Why did you come back?"
She is so close, and he does not pull away, does not push her away, does not giggle and distance himself with a flourish of expressive hands. She is trembling and she cannot think past the sound of her heartbeat thrumming in her ears, but he leans closer, stares at her as if he has never seen anything so wondrous in all his centuries of adventures. Then all that exists is him—the echo of his question still fading from the room, her answer striking gold to gleam with hidden highlights in his eyes, the warmth of him so close to her. The desperate, disbelieving hope scrawled across his face more blatantly than any other emotion he has ever displayed. He is everything she never knew she wanted, and all her hopes for the future have narrowed down to fit his slender profile, have expanded to include the infinite mystery that is Rumplestiltskin.
She loves him.
She has never known anything with such certainty, never felt so sure of a decision. Sacrificing herself to save her family and friends was the right choice, but she had been afraid and unsure, all her certainty submerged beneath her fear and her determination to fulfill her promise. Coming back was a desperate stab in the dark, a mad hope that she wasn't wrong about him. But this…this is right and good and perfect, and she knows, knows with everything she is, that he can be her adventure and she can be his light. He needs her—and she needs him.
"You've loved no one…and no one has loved you?"
Belle tilts her face and kisses her true love, and even the promise given her by the stranger on the road fades away, because she has wanted to kiss him for days, weeks, now.
She takes a chance.
She kisses Rumplestiltskin, and he changes.
She was so happy for him. She smiled at him and shone with her hope and delight, and she promised she would wait for him. Her faith was dazzling, her beauty beguiling, and he saw the future in her eyes.
He should have known it was too good to last.
Darkness always finds him, hunts him down and corners him and consumes him, all the more fiercely whenever he thinks he can escape it. She loved him, and it was too much, and now he will pay for his brief moments of happiness—everything comes with a price, hasn't he learned his lesson by now?
But he hasn't, because here he stands, in a hospital room, breathing in the odor of sanitized nothingness, staring at the shell of a woman braver and truer than any other. He stands, and he stares, and he hopes, takes a step forward. He is trembling, and he works the fingers of his free hand as if he is at his wheel, but still he moves until he is standing over her.
"All curses can be broken!"
It will not work. Of course it won't. She does not remember him, does not know him. Does not love him. He will kiss her and nothing will happen and then he will not even have hope to cling to. Just him and his cup and memories too exquisite to linger over.
"This means it's true love!"
But what if it does work? What if it could? What if she feels something for him, some echo of her real self trapped beneath this curse, fighting to come out, showing itself only in her subconscious?
"When you find something that's worth fighting for, you never give up."
He can't breathe for hope, for fear, but he reaches out an unsteady hand and replaces imaginary thread with soft, warm, familiar skin. He can't think past his desperation, his numbness, but he bends until his breath ghosts over her peaceful, beautiful features. Then all that exists is her—the smell of her perfume mingled with rain and hospital soap, the feel of her beneath his hand, the sensation of her breath entering the air between them to merge with his. The sight of her. Perfect. Quiet. She looks exactly like the Belle who loves him, who comes to see him just because she wants to, who calls him on the phone he got her just so she can hear his voice, who flees to him for comfort and safety and love. She looks like his true love.
She is his true love.
He has never hoped for anything in life, not like this. Bae is a goal, an obsession, but there is so little hope there, all of it submerged beneath focused determination and anguished regret. Magic is a means to an end, an addiction. Victory is no more than the result of carefully thought out strategies, calculated deals and alliances. But Belle…Belle is hope, and now he hopes, hopes with everything he is because she has always come back to him before and surely, surely, she will do so again. She promised—she promised she would be there for him.
"True love is the most powerful magic in the world."
Rumplestiltskin closes the space between them and kisses his true love, and maybe it will be nothing more than the goodbye kiss they didn't get, but he has to try.
He can't give up.
He kisses Belle, and she smiles.
It happens so fast. One minute, he is a man, tremulous and dazed, reaching out to cup her arm with a warm, calloused hand. The next, he is a monster, the beast he named himself, all rage and fury, madness in his steps, betrayal in his eyes, and she does not know this creature advancing so dangerously on her.
She is confused and astonished and hurt all at once, and she would be scared but she does not know how to be scared of him. He was first a mysterious legend, then her town's savior, then her amusing master, and then a cursed man. And now, even when he is harsh and unfamiliar, even when he treads on the shards of her dreams, she cannot fear him.
"I knew you could never care for me," he says, and rage replaces hurt, condemnation subsumes anguish, the man is once more safely tucked away beneath the monster, and he is trying to teach her to fear him. But she refuses to learn.
He has been alone so long, and she thinks that he has never known love, and he lives all by himself in a dark castle surrounded by silent, dead trophies, and his windows may be uncovered now, but he still slinks in shadows. It is all he has ever known, and now she realizes that it is all he has ever expected to know, and how could she have thought that a chipped cup and a ray of sunlight and a basket of straw were enough to dissolve the prison he has fashioned around himself?
"Or is this all you? Is this you being the hero and killing the beast?" he asks. He prowls forward like an animal, and she does not want to tame him, but she does want to gentle him, so she reaches forward. To touch him, to hold him, to reassure him that she would never want to hurt him. That she would never betray him.
But she has.
She does not know how or exactly when, but she has stepped over a line he etched between them and violated his trust and broken his already brittle pieces. Pain—centuries of it—and anguish—new and gushing out life-blood—and despair—so deep and dark and bitter that the stench of it rolling outward from him chokes and poisons her—consuming him, cloaking him in cursed darkness.
"No one—no one—can ever, ever love me!" He snarls it like an accusation, but it isn't. It is a cry of despair, an anguished plea, a roar of pain. She wants to heal him, wants to comfort him, wants to love him with all that she is. But he throws her in a dungeon and locks himself up behind fierce savagery and terrible destruction, as if to prove to himself—remind himself—that he is alone and will always be alone.
Belle crumples up against the door he has locked behind him, and she weeps for him.
If only she could have touched him, taken his hand, breached the gulf between them.
It happens so fast. One minute, she is smiling, eyelashes fluttering, memories surfacing, and hope suffuses his entire being. The next, she is a stranger, the hollow shell Hook threatened him with, all terror and shock, emptiness behind the flailing hands that shove him backward, fear he has never before seen now flooding familiar eyes, and he does not know this girl screaming at him, because of him.
He is anguished and resigned and defeated, all the things he knew he would be, and he would be hurt but this is not really her, not his Belle. His Belle is brave and compassionate and so smart, able to see past whatever layers he throws up between them, and she always, always loves him no matter that she shouldn't. But this Belle, hollow and empty, pushing away the beast she has always before drawn to her, isn't his.
"Who's Belle?" she'd asked him, lost and afraid and so uncertain, none of the confidence and sparkling life that so captivated and entranced him, and still he cannot help but love her. But she does not know it.
She is different, cursed, and she does not know him, and she is so very afraid, her strengths stripped away to leave behind only a blank slate, and maybe she smiles when her subconscious mind senses him near, but she is still defined only by what she lacks. It is all she can be, and he knew that, knows that she has been hurt so very terribly, so very intimately by the curse he himself created, so how could he have expected her to still love him?
"Get away!" she'd begged him. She'd crawled away, done everything to put distance between them, even when it hurt, even when she found blood on her shoulder, even when he'd healed her, as if it could be so easy to restore her to who she once was, to who she should be. He wants to reassure her, wants to heal her mind, wants to calm her. Wants to take away her fear.
But he can't.
He tried, kissed her even though there was no way it could work, put all his faith in true love's kiss, and he is afraid—oh so very afraid—that this means she did not really love him, or perhaps that his twisted, shrunken heart can't love her truly enough, but he can't think those things. Because she is hurt—hurt more than even she knows—and lost—lost in a world she cannot understand—and broken—as broken as he—and she needs him, so it is his turn to be strong for her.
"What are you?" She asked it as if he could answer, but how could he when every time he has ever told her what he is, she has corrected him, contradicted him, caressed away a lifetime of hurt? He wants to crawl away into dark and cold places to lick the wounds shredded into him by her screams and her horror and revilement, but he loves her and she has been teaching him what it is to love and he will not leave her alone and friendless and broken, so instead he apologizes—for all the things she does not remember and for what she does.
He flees her presence because it is what she wants, and he holds their cup and remembers for the both of them.
If only true love could work for a beast; if only happy endings were possible for a monster.
He always moved with grace, but now he is still, motionless, frozen. She stares and speaks and tries to make him move, but he remains in place, his back to her, his profile rigid and unyielding and so sharp that she is afraid she will cut herself on the edges—but she will not back down.
He always danced with his hands, but now he holds them tightly clasped before him, and she hates this change. She loves his hands. She loves watching them move and weave and flicker through the air, a language all their own that hypnotizes and entrances. And now they are tight and imprisoned, one inside the other, and she would do anything to set them free, to feel them once more reach out to tentatively touch her.
He always spoke as if words were colors and he a master artist, but now he uses only a dozen words, each one clipped and short and stark and all of them cruel. He tells her to go and calls her a liar and says nothing when she wants him to speak, to shout, to whisper, to do anything but just remain so silent, so dead.
He always mesmerized her with the shimmering emotions in his eyes, written across his features, but now there is nothing, and that hurts. He is blank and empty, and his warm, expressive eyes are dull, reflecting back her hurt and anger and despair and giving her nothing of himself. Stares at her as if she is nothing, as if he did not laugh with her and confide in her and kiss her. As if they don't share true love.
He pretended to be cruel with her, but he never proved it to her, and now, when he tries, when he stares at her so unresponsively and rejects her and does not move to meet her halfway, she still does not believe him. If he were cruel, if he were as cold and heartless as he wants her to think he is, then he would be dancing now. He would be moving and flourishing exquisite gestures and spinning brittle words like glittering treasures. But he is trying too hard and so she does not believe him—but it still hurts.
"My power means more to me than you," he tells her, and she doesn't know what to do. Because this isn't something she's ever seen in him before. He's never hurt her so badly, never struck out so fiercely, never shut himself away so deep and dark and cold. She needs him and she loves him and she kissed him, so how can she be expected to leave when he tells her to and walk away as if she can forget him, as if what they shared means nothing to her?
"You just don't think I can love you," she says, and it is all the argument she has and maybe all the argument she needs, because it is true.
And she can do this. She can turn around and walk away—not because he means nothing to her, but because she loves him and he is hurting and it is her fault. She stole his grace and his movements and his quips, stripped him of the only defenses he has, and it is her fault that he is so still and silent and stilted, and love isn't supposed to destroy. So she will leave and let him build himself back up.
She wants to hug him, wants to reach out and touch him just so that he has something better to cling to when he sits at his spinning wheel and tries to forget these last days. It was he who touched her first, she remembers, when she promised to go with him forever, his hand falling so familiarly and intimately on the small of her back. It is ironic, then, that he cannot touch her now, though it feels more like tragedy than irony, and all she has to mark it is the chipped cup that she leaves to him.
He does not stop her from leaving, does not follow her, and so she keeps walking. Her determination keeps her steps steady even as her heart shrivels up within her. Her tears trickle down her cheeks no matter how she tries to swallow them back. She thinks that there is a void in her chest where her heart used to be, bruised emptiness taking the place of the hope and happiness that so briefly resided there. She never realized how much emptiness could hurt, and she wishes she had something to fill it with.
But she is not a hero. She is not Rumplestiltskin's savior. She's not even a caretaker anymore. Happiness isn't hers. Not yet, anyway, not while he's still not ready.
But one day…one day he will be ready. She will be able to return and bring back that disbelieving wonder to his eyes.
And then…and then they will be happy. She will reach out and take his hand and he will not be mute or motionless or blank. He will dance for her, with her. He will reach out with agile hands to show her their chipped cup, still whole and treasured and prominent. He will tell her that he loves her. And maybe, one day, he will kiss her.
But not today. Today she must leave. Today she must walk away. Today she must not look back because she wants to remember him as her laughing, spinning imp, not this statue left in her dungeon. Today is for pretending her heart isn't broken.
Only…only it would be so much easier to pretend if she could stop crying.
It would be so much better remembering him as he should be if he had only said something kinder in farewell.
It would be so much easier to leave if she could only know for sure that she will get to come back.
But there is nothing. She is alone.
It is a terrible feeling.
She taught him hope, so he tries again. He wipes his mouth clean of Cora's touch and sits before their chipped cup and goes through every spell he has ever learned until he finds one that might—maybe, could be, please!—work, and then he casts it and he sets the teacup so gently in his pocket with another spell to keep it safe no matter how unsteady his steps and he goes to see his love.
She taught him faith, so he does not doubt that it will work. Of course it will. It will work, because it is their cup and she is the one who chipped it and his Belle never gives up, never runs away, never loses. She will remember, and she will smile at him and she will touch him again and he will not feel so empty and lost and barren.
She taught him patience, so he is gentle and careful as he speaks to her. He gives her the cup and forces himself to calm when she is careless with it and does not fly apart into a thousand shivering pieces when she won't just look at it. He watches her and he rubs his fingers against his thumb and he keeps his tone soft and quiet.
She taught him love, so he ignores the terrible, awful burning, searing pain inside him when she tells him to leave her be. Gives him back their cup as if it means nothing. Dismisses him as if he is only a stranger she feels nothing for, not love or hate, not fondness or terror. Tells him to go away.
She tried to teach him forgiveness, but he has not learned that lesson yet—he needs his Belle back to finish teaching him—and so he can only stare at the shards of their cup. Can only gape at the remnants of his hope and his faith and his love and try so very, very hard not to weep in front of her.
"Just go away!" she begs him, and he is lost. Because she did not teach him this. She didn't teach him how to walk away, didn't give him lessons on how to let go of the one you love, and he doesn't know how to do this. He lost Bae centuries ago and he still hasn't been able to let him go, so how can he be expected to let Belle go when he can still feel the echo of warmth from her hand in his, the shadow of her arms wrapped around him, the fading color of her smiles turned in his direction, the whisper of her lips on his?
"I'm sorry," he whispers, a dry, brittle voice, the dying breath of everything his chipped cup represented for him.
And maybe she didn't have to teach him this lesson, because he already knows this. He knows how to walk away, knows how to keep upright and limping until he is all alone, because it is all he has ever done in his life. He runs and he hides and he pretends that he is not destroyed.
He wants to pick up the shards of their cup, but why should he? Why, when it was her who shattered it? She chipped it, gave it to him, bequeathed it to him when she left him, and now…now she has taken it away from him. Fitting, so very fitting, and he is surprised it has taken this long for disaster to strike.
The glass door closes between them, and still he continues walking. His cane keeps him upright. His tears dry up and wither away. His pain blazes inside him, consuming him, obliterating him. Building him up, steeling him, protecting him from the cruel, harsh realities facing him.
He's a monster. A villain. A beast. Happiness isn't for him. Not now, not yet, not while he's still so unworthy.
But Bae…Bae waits for him. He can fix his mistake, make reparation for his crime.
And then…and then he will come back. And he will find Belle, and he will hope. He will have faith. He will be patient. He will never stop loving her. And maybe one day, someday, he will learn how to forgive himself.
But not today. Today is for Bae. Today is for leaving. Today is for never looking back because if he does, he will crumple and fall and tear himself to bloody, anguished pieces. Today is for planning.
Only…only, it would be so much easier to plan if he had a cup to hold.
It would be so much better finding Bae if he had Belle waiting for him.
It would be so much easier not to look back if he had something to look forward to.
But there is nothing. He is alone.
It is a familiar feeling.
It's not forever. Of course it isn't. She's already promised him her forever and she doesn't intend to break their deal. She will come back. He will admit that he loves her and that she loves him—she believes this with all of her heart. If she didn't…but she does. She won't give up on him, and he will take her back.
These two truths keep her warm and well, allow her to smile and laugh at love-struck dwarves and good books. She has never been good at giving up—as her father and Gaston both learned—on her dreams. Never been able to believe that there isn't always some good to find somewhere. Never been able to stop hoping. So now she hopes.
Rumplestiltskin is unique and wondrous and beautifully layered, but he is also isolated. She will leave him and let him grow used to the idea of loving someone and being loved in return—and she knows this will take him hours and days and weeks of spinning more straw into gold while staring ahead at the things he can't outrun or forget—and she will hope that he will keep and cherish their chipped cup and think of her often.
She must leave him with the chipped cup rather than stay herself because he will not flinch from the cup. Because he has grown used to it. Because its silence can say more than he will let her confess to him.
And then, when she has seen a bit of the world—experienced the freedom he gave her twice—she will go back to him. And he will let her in because he loves her truly and deeply enough that he broke his deal for her and gave her freedom. It will be hard on her, this separation, but she can suffer through it if it means that she will get to return to Rumplestiltskin's side.
He let her come back before. He will again.
She will wait for him.
She will wait forever.
It's not final. Of course it isn't. He cannot give up on her, not when she is so obviously worth fighting for. He will come back. She will love him again—he will not let himself believe differently. If he does…but he won't. He won't give up, and she won't hate him forever.
These two truths grow to overshadow everything else. He has a lifetime—an immortal lifetime—of practice in refusing to let go. In holding on. In never taking his eyes off his goal. So now, again, still, he will be patient and he will hold on tightly enough for the both of them.
Belle is precious, special, irreplaceable, more valuable than anything else in this town, forget the product of true love. He will leave to find his son and make amends and make sure he is well and will probably be rejected—but it will be worth it because at least then he will be sure that his beloved Bae is all right, is happy and safe and alive—and he can do that because Charming and Whale, and everyone in this whole town if they know what's good for them, will protect Belle.
It will be they who will protect her rather than him, because she will not flinch from them. Because she is not afraid of them. Because she does not want distance from everyone else.
And then, when he has done what he needs to—found his son and stopped himself from killing Hook, the last things she asked of him—he will come back to her. And she will be waiting for him because she promised him she would be. It might take a while, but he has lived centuries, and he can wait a few weeks, months, even years, if it means his Belle will come back to him.
She always has before. She will again.
He will wait for her.
He will wait forever.