A/N: Thanks for all the encouragement and great responses for this story! Fair warning - this chapter is as long as the last two combined. I tried to keep it under control, but it got away from me... Also, a huge thanks to roberre for a great beta-ing job on this chapter, and for letting me complain to her when Lacey was giving me a hard time! Hope you all enjoy, and I'd love to hear what you think of it!
Disclaimer: Several episodes are referenced; they were written by others and don't belong to me. No copyright infringement is intended.
She is on the road. It's night, stars almost invisibly pricking the black sky. It's raining, a shimmer of moisture making the air waver in front of her, a haze that gives the setting an air of unreality. Her shoulder hurts, aches and burns in a way that doesn't make any sense.
There's a man holding her, cradling her against him. He's shouting in her face, his hands jostling her carelessly, eyes wide and fraught with panic she doesn't understand, and all she hears is Belle, Belle, Belle like an echo, a shadow of a memory of a dream.
"Who—?" she stammers, frightened and upset and so unbelievably confused. "Who's Belle?"
Blood stains her shoulder, spreading out from a hole in her jacket and shirt (a jacket and shirt she doesn't remember wearing; where is the hospital gown and the coat her rescuer gave her?), but the man (Mr. Gold, she thinks, but she can't quite remember if she'd managed to find him on her own or if he found her) stares down at her, shocked and disbelieving and wounded, as if he's the one who's been shot.
There are shouts and another man behind them, a pistol in his hand (the gleam of sharp silver where a hand should be), and she is moved (cradled and sheltered as if she is infinitely precious) and then she cannot look away, cannot think, cannot even move because Mr. Gold (he'll protect you, her rescuer had said, but he must have been wrong, or maybe it was only another delusion) is holding a ball of flame in his hand and there is death in his eyes, flickering with reflected fire.
She doesn't have time to see anything else, to think anything else, to figure out why there is a fireball in a man's hand or why there is a pirate with a gun, because there's the screech of tires and the fireball disappears. But the frenzy, the panic, is still there in his eyes as he turns to her. "Belle!" he shouts, and she doesn't know why he keeps calling her that, but it doesn't matter. He dives at her, and there is pain and hard surfaces and dirt and mud and the stench of wet asphalt, and for one blessed instant, there is the soothing void of blackness.
It doesn't last.
She wakes to his whisper, his murmur, and his hands are on her, and she doesn't like it. He's too much, all over her, everywhere, and she can't get away from him. His hands are holding onto her arms, her legs, her shoulders (helping her up and brushing away dirt from her jacket and smoothing down her hair) and he's kneeling in front of her (like he's begging her, pleading with her, and she doesn't knowwhat he wants) and his voice never stops, going on and on, a shifting murmur of words and tones and pleas and empty reassurances in an accent that shifts pitches, but he doesn't seem to hear her.
"Shh, shh, beautiful Belle," he says, and that hurts even worse because he's touching her and he's talking to her but he doesn't know her at all.
She just wants him to be gone. She wants the pain in her shoulder to disappear. She wants the rain and the darkness and the smoking car and the line spray-painted across the black road to all go away, and she never thought she would want to go back to her tiny little room with its grated windows and its hard ledge—but she does. At least the room is familiar and understandable and quiet and real.
She screams (because he's still touching her with hands like burning brands—but no fire, only his skin and his touch and his voice), and he waves his hand, and for an instant, she thinks he is going to burn her with fire, cast flames at her from his palm. But instead, the pain in her shoulder vanishes, gone as if it had never been, and there is only a hole where there was once something else.
"All better, good," he tells her, but he's lying, because nothing is better or good now. It's all pain and confusion and loss, and the feel of his hands on her, scorching through the chill of the rain and the flare of the scabs on her knees and palms and the din of sirens approaching.
"It's nothing to be afraid of," he says, but he's not listening to her and he's still touching her, and she is afraid. Of him. Of his hands. Of the fire in her blood and the surge of her heart.
He lets her back away from him, but his hand lingers on her knee, her calf. "Belle, please," he begs, and she can't take it anymore.
"What are you?" she screams at him, and finally, for the first time, she touches him. Affects him. Hurts him.
He backs away. There are people there, rushing toward her, engulfing her in an embrace, helping Mr. Gold to his feet, and he's saying she doesn't remember, she crossed a line, she's gone, but she can't concentrate on that. There's a woman with her arm around her shoulders, helping her rise, asking her questions in a soft voice. There's another woman over by a man broken on the ground, and there's blood on her jacket still, sticky against her flesh, and there are police cars and sirens and talking, but absolutely none of it matters.
She can only see Mr. Gold. His eyes like empty voids, his hands hanging slack at his sides until the man who helped him gives him a cane, his face closed down so that the flames are gone cold as ash and bitter as poison.
Then he is gone and there are more shouts, and more yelling ("What would Belle want you to do?" but she pretends she doesn't hear that or notice that silence falls after the question), and for a while, she is alone (abandoned, bereft, heartbroken) and there is only the soft-voiced woman lifting her up and herding her over to a car where the strange man is tugging Mr. Gold away from the broken man and making him lean against a nearby vehicle and…and…and so much more, but it turns into a shifting, swirling mass of people she doesn't know and words she doesn't understand and touches that don't affect her at all.
And then the woman leaves her alone in the cold and the dark, and she huddles into herself and wraps her arms around herself—and cannot look away from Mr. Gold. Standing apart from her. Staring at her. Watching her (but all he sees is Belle, Belle, Belle), cold and hard and…and yearning.
She ducks her head and lets her hair hide her from him.
But she still sees him, seared into the backs of her eyelids.
And there is a fire waiting to be ignited in his eyes.
She wakes to his kiss, and if it were a story, she would remember whatever it is he wants her to remember. She would be healed and well and not fractured by a lifetime spent in a tiny little room hidden away from the world (she would be Belle), and she would smile at him (a handsome prince, with light in his eyes and kindness in his touch), and they would be happy (not broken and hurting and alone).
But it isn't a story, and his touch burned through even her sedated dreams (lethargic and familiar), and so she screams.
She is afraid that he will summon another fireball. That he will hurt her and scare her and threaten her. She watches his hands (raised in front of him as if it is she who is dangerous), but no fireball appears, no flames or shimmer of blue that leaves her numb and unharmed (and aching with something missing).
Instead, he backs away (and his eyes hold more terror than even she feels). He apologizes (soft and quiet and anguished). And he runs away from her (all dark lines and black coat and gilded cane).
And he did hurt her. Not with fire. Not with bullets. Not with threats.
But he left. And she hurts.
"It-it's a cup," she tells him, because he's looking at it as if it's oh so much more (and if empty air can become a fireball, then maybe a cup can become something precious and valuable). "It's…it's damaged."
She wants to believe him. She wants to listen to him and realize that he's making sense and she's just been a little out of it and she'll know exactly who he is and why he's here and what he wants from her (because her rescuer promised Mr. Gold would protect her, but this Mr. Gold looks at her and only wants her to disappear and cease to exist so that he can have his Belle back). She wants to be someone who can reach out and touch him and not flinch away when he lifts his hand to brush back her hair or hand her a damaged teacup.
But he tells her it's magic, a talisman, a charm, and it will make her remember, but she already remembers (she was in her cell so long she doesn't even have to close her eyes to imagine it around her again), and he's not touching her anymore so she can think clearly now—and if there's one thing she knows, it's that she's never been in a castle and she's never held this teacup before and she's not Belle (the woman who makes him almost-cry and almost-smile and almost-hope and always-hurt).
"Just look at it!" he demands, but his hand is on the cup, cradling it, holding it, protecting it, and he doesn't care about her.
It makes her angry. It makes her sad. It makes her scared.
She's confused (and they will come and lock her away again and even this tiny bit of freedom will be denied her).
When she throws the cup, when it shatters against the wall, she thinks that maybe it really was magic. Maybe his heart was in the cup. Maybe he'd changed his heart into the cup itself.
And now she's broken it.
His grief hurts even more than the bullet wound she knows she didn't imagine. His quiet apology strikes more deeply than her own confusion and pain.
He walks away.
She tells herself she is glad. (She does not look at the broken shards he leaves behind.)
He does not come back.
A woman comes and says they are friends. She brings her a book and muffins and tears and sad smiles. She does not touch her.
The nurse is here, and the hospital room she has all to herself is little different from the cell. The sedatives run their sluggish, lightning haze through her veins and the days merge one into another. The nurse touches her often, but she cannot feel it past the numb lethargy.
A man comes and tells her about magic. When he says it aloud, when he looks at her with fervent zeal in his eyes, it sounds real. It sounds like more than a delusion (but that only makes Mr. Gold's words, and the look in his eyes, and the cup she destroyed even more difficult to remember without curling into a ball and weeping). The man tells her he believes her, but then he leaves and he does not come back, and she is alone again.
And still Mr. Gold does not come.
She begins to think that she should not have told him to go away. She begins to think he should not have chosen now to finally start listening to her.
Dr. Whale gives her a phone, one day. It's her phone, he says. He retrieved it from her bag (the one a tall man with a badge at his belt and pity in his eyes brought her after Mr. Gold left) and he says that Mr. Gold wants to talk to her.
She wants to throw the phone (like she threw the cup) and go back to the sedatives and the book and the absence of any feeling.
But he touched her, once, and it's been so long since she's seen him and felt him. So she takes the phone (curled up on her side in the bed, because she is tired and her latest dose hasn't worn off yet), and she lets Mr. Gold tell her who she is.
"You are a hero," he tells her (and there aren't many opportunities to be a hero in a cell, but she hears the conviction in his voice and knows he believes it), "who helped your people." (And she is alone and has no people, only him.)
"You're a beautiful woman," he says (and there were no mirrors in her cell, but she remembers he called her 'Beautiful Belle' and he looked at her as if she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen), "who loved an ugly man." (She remembers him kissing her, backing away, fleeing through a door, and she does not think he spends much time looking in mirrors either.)
"Really, really loved me," he adds (and he thinks she is Belle, but she thinks it would be easy to love him even if she isn't Belle).
"You find goodness in others, and when it's not there, you create it," he continues (and he's nowhere near, not even in the same building, but he might as well be right at her side, because his words burn through her as adeptly as did his touch).
"You make me want to go back, back to the best version of me, and that never happened before." (And it hasn't happened this time, either, because she's spent her life sitting on a ledge beneath a window, watching a sliver of the sky pass her by, but she wants to believe him.)
"So when you look in the mirror, and you don't know who you are…" (And she has looked in the mirror, the tiny rectangle hanging in the bathroom, and wondered who she is.) "That's who you are." (She doesn't know how he knows her, why he thinks he knows her, but she wants him to be right.)
"Thank you," he says, and she thinks she hears him say "Belle," but maybe not, because there is only a dial tone ringing in her ear and the sound of tears sliding down her face.
And maybe he was telling the truth (and maybe he loved her), but it doesn't matter, because he's dead.
Even the sedatives cannot make her stop weeping.
Even the numbness cannot erase the echo of his voice.
Even the truth of reality cannot banish the beauty of the fantasies he wove for her.
And maybe her heart was in that chipped cup, too, because it's broken now.
She is trying to read the book the woman left for her when he knocks at the door to her room. She's had time to think, since his phone-call (since Dr. Whale found out the nurse was giving her so many sedatives and filled the room with sharp-edged threats), time to piece together her fragmented memories. Time to realize she did not want him to die. She wants him to be alive. To be well. To come back.
And now here he is.
He smiles when he sees her, as if he can't help himself (and she smiles, too). He hesitates at the doorway, as if he's afraid of her (and she realizes, to her surprise, that she isn't afraid). He apologizes for startling her, as if that is more important than whatever made him think he was going to die (and she wonders if he apologizes for fireballs and blue shimmers and kisses as much as for alarming phone-calls).
Her memories of that night, out on the black road with the rain in her face and the sirens piercing her ears and the stench of smoke in the air, are flickering and startling, unbelievable and dark, full of flashes of terror and moments of pain and a great overwhelming, swathing confusion. She remembers a man in shadows, hands that never let her be, a voice that pushed and shoved and demanded feelings and emotions and responses from her, a cane that sounded loud in the stormy air against the road (and the flash of a pirate she hasn't seen here at the hospital). She remembers a man, black against the white of the hospital, the echoes of his desperate shout ("What's happening? Belle? Belle!")
But this man almost seems someone else entirely. He's still and quiet and careful. He keeps a pace between her hospital bed and his feet, his hands draped very pointedly on the golden head of his cane. He watches her tentatively, cautiously, warily (yearningly, desperately, as if he wants to reach out and touch but doesn't trust her not to vanish into thin air). His voice is soft and quiet and not demanding at all.
It doesn't seem right, to smile at him and trust him and believe him and forgive him for the flames at his fingertips and the intimacy of his kiss and the imperiousness of his cup, so she asks him the same question she asks everyone she meets (except the nurse, because there is no use in tempting fate).
She asks him about magic and the healing he could conjure with a wave of his hands (but not the flames he'd summoned with rage and grief and vengeance searing in his eyes). She thinks he will lie and give her the same story everyone else does (even the doctor who made sure she could stay awake through the days), and disappointment flares heavy and cold in her stomach when he begins to mouth the same platitudes.
"Once you remember who you are," he says, and she can't help but stare up at him, because this is not the same script the others have followed, "it'll all become clear."
Fear is easy and bravery is hard, but he told her she could be a hero (she could love him), so she does her best to pretend to bravery (to build a bridge between them). "Can you help me do that? Remember who I am?"
"Only if you help me remember who I am," he replies.
She's useless, locked away for being dangerous or crazy or flawed, but he looks at her, and he thinks she is precious (like the cup he wanted her to look at). He thinks she is beautiful (like the woman he cared about enough to kiss). He thinks she is good (like someone he could call in his last moments). And now he wants her to help him (like she's valuable and useful and helpful and not-broken).
A chance. A hope. A goal.
She's been locked away, and as soon as she was freed, she found herself in the cold and dark with a hole in her body. She doesn't know this Mr. Gold (but "he'll protect you," she'd been promised), but he knows her. Somehow, someway she can't explain (but she can't explain magic either, and he did not say she was crazy), he's part of her past, part of her. His touch wouldn't have stayed with her so long if he weren't.
So she reaches out (because he won't), to grasp hold of this chance (to test herself; to test him).
Her hand fits just so over his. Her fingers curl over his. Her warmth merges with his.
It feels right (especially when he jerks at her movement). It feels natural (especially when he stares down at their hands as if it's more amazing than flames and healing). It feels good (especially when he looks back up at her and smiles a reverent, careful smile).
It burns and sears through her, a scorching inferno sweeping across her brittle, hollow nerve endings and making them sing and wake, stir from their slumber to cast colored sparkles across her vision as she looks into his scared, lonely, hopeful eyes.
"We can help each other," she says, and she knows it is true.
"Yeah," he breathes (and she thinks he wants to kiss her).
"Let's talk to someone about getting you out of here," he says (and she thinks she wants to kiss him). "You've been locked up long enough."
She smiles up at him (her hand still on his, because now that she's started, she doesn't want to stop). He stares down at her (his smile still in his eyes, and even if she's not who he wants her to be, he's still going to help her).
She wonders how she ever could have been afraid of this man. Her rescuer. Her healer.
She has things to pack. They're unfamiliar to her (all except the phone, which she handles with sentimental care), but she places them in her bag anyway.
Then a woman comes in, with a smile (open and wide and friendly and not at all like Mr. Gold's), and she says Mr. Gold's name. The woman, the mayor, seems…hollow and dark, something broken inside her, but still she is trying to be helpful. So she offers her a smile.
In return, the mayor hands her a tiny object. "What's this, dear? Did you drop it?" she asks.
She didn't, but she looks down at the matchbook anyway. Once, and then again.
And everything becomes suddenly clear.
Lacey's not quite sure how she came to lose her memories, or why she has vague recollections of a cell, but she doesn't care. She's been cooped up too many days, been away from her usual haunts so long that everyone will have forgotten her. There's an echo in her head, something about Mr. Gold, but she shrugs it away and she walks out of the hospital on her own. They can't stop her after all—she's fine, healthy, and she has her memory now.
Her apartment, on the rattier side of town, looks abandoned, and it's all locked up, but she manages to pry open a grimy window and clamber in before anyone sees her in the very unflattering hospital gown and sweat pants. There's no dust on the furniture inside, which seems odd, but Lacey lets it slide. What matters is that her wardrobe is there, sparkling and shimmery and shining with blue flashes that make her blink and raise a hand to her suddenly spinning head.
The nurses and doctors at the hospital (and a man in a dark suit with a cane at his side) would probably tell her to rest, but Lacey's tired of resting. She feels like she's about to explode, all the restless energy inside her seething, demanding a release, so she cuts off her hospital bracelet, jumps in the shower, dresses in the clothes that make her feel immediately more comfortable and beautiful. Her hair's straighter than she remembers—proof that the hospital shampoo isn't up to her standards at all—but she clips it back, and then she's out the door and down the street to the Rabbit Hole.
This, at least, hasn't changed. Maybe the regulars look confused at first, but she's been gone a while and they eventually recognize her. Things have been…different…lately, and she likes being here, in a place familiar and comfortable and the same. There's no Mr. Gold here (and maybe she asks about him, but that's simple curiosity, no more), no strange stories about another woman (Belle, and just the memory, slanted in a Scottish accent, rings loud over the music playing in the background), no reminders of flames in a rainy night or a blue glow over a bullet-ridden shoulder (no pirates or magicians or pleading eyes that can scorch straight through her). Just soothing liquor, the steady hum of people around her, and the feel of the pool cue in her hands and the clack against the balls (erasing the discomfort brought by her accident).
But then Mr. Gold comes. And he looks at her as if she's a stranger (as if she's not Belle). And he stares ("Do-do you remember me?" he asks, as if he's the sort of man who could ever be forgotten), and his hand on her arm surges through her like an electrical storm.
She plays it cool ("Guy who visited me in hospital," she says, while the kiss he gave her and his hands on her and his disbelieving hope when they agreed to help each run through her mind like molten silver), shrugs it off, ignores him. She pretends she doesn't even notice when he turns his back on her and walks away. She most definitely does not watch the door to see if he returns.
She's Lacey, independent and free, and she doesn't need anyone (most especially an older man with a bad reputation who looks at her as if he might cry). Things are back to normal, and that means no Mr. Gold. No Belle. No magic. No hospitals.
Mr. Gold comes back.
He stands at her side, and he talks. Just a few words, barely anything of substance at all. But she listens. She tries to overwhelm him with facts she knows he isn't familiar with, tries to drown him out with music, tries to pretend he means nothing at all. But he follows her, and he tries again, and he stands right in front of her, and he holds out his hand (the one that gleamed with molten light beneath the flicker of flames) as if begging her.
So maybe she's done more than casually ask about him. Maybe she's curious and intrigued as to why he cares so much. Maybe she just feels sorry for him, this man no one loves, so lonely and desperate that he's stooped to pretending she's some perfect woman he's made up.
Or maybe there's something in the shifting darkness of his eyes, the sad quirk of his lips, the plea for her to look past the whispers of his ruthlessness and his power and his temper. Maybe she remembers something about a phone-call and the feel of his hands beneath hers. Maybe she's more captivated by him than she wants to admit.
But she's Lacey, and she loves a challenge. So she says yes.
Then she walks away (so she doesn't have to watch him do the same).
He's jumpy and nervous. He shifts in his seat and fumbles the menu and keeps his hands clasped in his lap. He makes half-hearted efforts at conversation and denies the rumors about him and almost breaks down when she throws out a cliché.
If this is Mr. Gold, she thinks, the rumors are blown far out of proportion.
She tries. Really, she does. But there's no excitement here, no danger, nothing to make adrenaline shoot through her body and cause the world to explode at the corners of her eyes and the rafters to shake. There's no spark, nothing to explain why his touch had seemed anything special earlier.
He reaches out for her, once, but instead of fire and passion and heat, she's only splashed with sticky tea. She tries once more (for a reason she can't explain), patting him on the shoulder as she passes him for the restroom.
But there's nothing. No spark. No lightning. No reason to stay.
So she leaves.
Keith is pushy and arrogant and a bit smarmy, but his hand is warm when he catches her wrist, and there's the flame of lust in his eyes, and that has to be better than tears and sad smiles and mild-mannered pawnbrokers. He's aggressive and he slams her up against the wall and he bruises her lips, but she's been a long time in the hospital, a long time without feeling, and this is enough to remind her she's alive.
When Mr. Gold arrives, it's suddenly and wholly. Lacey is surrounded by arms and lips and firm muscles, and then there is nothing, only bristling rage and horrible, terrible fury crashing from his eyes as he brandishes his cane at her would-be lover, and he crowds the alley—crowds the whole town, as if Storybrooke as a whole isn't big enough to contain him. If he'd tried this earlier, she might have been impressed, but she's coming down from the high of sensation, and she doesn't like the complete cessation of the overwhelming feelings.
Keith slinks away as quickly as he came, and Lacey wants only to get away. But Mr. Gold's hand is on her shoulder, and she doesn't feel captivation—she feels trapped, and there's nothing she hates more.
She doesn't look back as she walks away.
When she finds him with Keith, the taller man who'd completely encompassed her in his hold now flat on his back on the ground and helpless, it's as if he's another man entirely (a third man, and that's an awful lot of personality for one lone man to hold, layered within him). Mr. Gold towers over Keith, and there is something there, something she hadn't seen before. There is power and charisma and danger and menace. There is unbridled passion and boundless emotion and a depth of caring so deep, so vast, that it could completely overwhelm her.
"You really are as dark as people say," she remarks, strolling closer, lured in by the brilliance, the heat, the power of the flames.
He stares at her, his head cocked to the side, and finally, he's not seeing Belle. Finally, he's seeing Lacey.
She holds her breath. Wonders if he'll leave her. If he'll turn around and walk away. (Wonders if he cares for her at all outside of his delusions of this Belle.)
Instead, he straightens, smiles. "Darker, dearie," he tells her (and there's a thrill in her heart, a flutter in her stomach, at the endearment). "Much darker."
And he turns back to his prey (on the ground and beaten because he dared touch Lacey, not Belle, not anyone else, just her).
And Lacey smiles.
It's easy, being with Mr. Gold. It's invigorating, being with the man everyone in town fears. It's startling, being with a man who can't decide if he's a grief-stricken lover, a tender suitor, or a dangerous man. He takes her to the Rabbit Hole but demands the whole of her attention, buys her drinks but never lets her pay him with a kiss, opens the door for her but snarls when she flirts. He's a mixture of old world charm and immediate charisma, and Lacey finds that instead of growing bored with him, she can't keep away.
"Maybe it's an appropriate name, after all," Lacey muses when they stand in front of the Rabbit Hole in the morning (Mr. Gold can't keep away from her either, if the sunrise wake-up call on the phone she was given in the hospital is any indication).
"The bar?" Mr. Gold raises an eyebrow, sharp and sardonic.
Lacey smiles a secretive smile. "Maybe," she purrs (because she's not about to admit to him she feels, sometimes, like a rabbit caught under the dangerous stare of a hawk).
"There are better places to spend our time," he tells her.
"Oh?" It's her turn to arch an eyebrow (a reflection of him, and she shouldn't like that, but it makes his lips twitch so it's worth it). "Like where? Not many places in town are open this early."
"Oh, I think my shop could offer you quite a selection," he retorts (and she's definitely a rabbit caught, because now he's luring her in to his lair).
Mr. Gold turns, hand taut on his cane, shoulders stiff, bristling and defensive.
Lacey gives an inviting smile to the man walking toward her (blonde and tall, and she remembers him chastising a nurse for her). He returns the smile easily.
"Whale!" Mr. Gold snaps, and Whale gives him a tiny nod. "Was there something you needed?"
"Just thought I'd come say hello. Haven't seen you for a while, Lacey." Whale casts a smile more suggestive than her own her way, and Mr. Gold is suddenly a graceful, lethal blur of motion that ends with the doctor flat on his back on the ground.
Lacey's startled, but she's also pleased.
She may be a rabbit with a hawk, but the hawk moves at her command. She may be a woman he can send away when he doesn't want her involved in his conversations, but she's a woman who possesses the keys he hands her (his fingers caressing her wrist).
She may be caught, but so is he.
The edge of danger (the temptation in the merest brush of his hands) only makes him all the more appealing.
"So it's, uh…so it's true," she says, triumphant to have caught him in his game (scared because magic shouldn't exist, but then, neither should this town-wide amnesia of her). "You, uh…you really can do magic."
"I think you might want to pour yourself another drink," he tells her (and he's not fazed at all by this talk of magic and tears and a woman out there in danger).
Lacey lets him pour her a drink, watches him carefully. She thought his cane and his temper and his blade-sharp words were reason enough to be afraid of him, but listening to him talk of spells and deals and bad memories makes her think that there's even more behind the universal fear of him.
And yet she's not afraid. He speaks of magic and he pulls out potions that glitter with rainbow colors and he tells her of the curse of Dark One. But he avoids her eyes (as if afraid she will turn away) and he admits that magic drives away the people he cares about (heedless of the vulnerability he exposes to her) and he summons a glittering, expensive necklace (just for her). Magic or not, he's still her Mr. Gold, the leash still in her hand even if he has one for her too.
She's not afraid. Not until he touches her.
Shivers run up and down her spine as he clasps the necklace. Quakes start in the pit of her stomach and move up into her heart as he so carefully pulls her hair free of the diamonds. Lightning-limned lethargy fills her as she leans back into him.
Well and truly caught, then, she thinks, because she should be bored of him by now, should have moved on long past now, should have grown tired of his smooth steps away when she tries to caress his face or neck, his distractions when she moves to kiss him, his tendency to look at her with almost-tears when he thinks she's not paying attention. She shouldn't care about him…but she does.
"We can be together forever," she tells him, tempts him, tests him (because she might as well get something from this infatuation).
But he moves back, his hands slide away, and there's once more a gulf between them.
She hates it.
"It's complicated," he says, but it really isn't. He's hers, now, hers forever, and she will fight to keep him, even if that means getting rid of some silly boy. They belong together, darkness and fire, thunder and lightning, black shadows and blue shimmers, a study in contrasts, like calling to like.
"I thought you were a man who wouldn't let anything stand in his way," she challenges him.
And he pulls her back to his side (violent and abrupt, decisive and bold; the dangerous layer, the predator who can beat a man to death with a cane, coming to the fore to glitter with reflective fire in his eyes).
Together forever, she thinks, and she welcomes the flames consuming her at his proximity. Her Mr. Gold. Her sorcerer.
Her Dark One.
She doesn't appreciate being sent away every time he wants to hold a conversation. He looks at her and he doesn't see Belle anymore (and that's good, she tells herself, even if it does mean there's a hard edge to the corners of his eyes and the creases around his mouth), but he doesn't know her entirely yet if he thinks she'll let him push her aside whenever it pleases him.
"I'm not stupid, you know," she says. "I can help you."
"Can you?" He studies her, carefully, a hint of calculation in his voice. He keeps his hands on the worktable before him (he does have good drinks here, in his pawnshop, but more than that, she likes the way she's the only one he invites into the back with him), and it's hard to believe that such ordinary hands can produce such magical things.
"I can." She cants her chin up in the air, gives him a sly smile. "For instance, I know that your earlier conversation with those straight arrows in here looking to save their enemy means they're distracted right now."
His eyes narrow, reassessing, wary (she feels a thrill to know she has the whole of his attention). "Oh?"
"Yeah." She sidles closer, until she has to look up to keep her gaze on his eyes. Her hands slide up to his shoulders without her conscious direction. His muscles tense beneath her touch; his hands are motionless on the table. "Means they'll be busy. So, if you decide to go look into the problem of a certain someone who might prove to be trouble for you down the road…?"
Some of his layers are exposed in front of her (just for an instant, an unguarded moment), shock and grief and loss and horror and terror, and then the shutters slide down and he's once more her dangerous, powerful Dark One. His hands tense, one over the other, until suddenly he reaches up and grasps hold of hers, pulling them away, clasping them in front of his chest. It's a firm hold, solid and real and alive, and Lacey lets her eyes shine with the thoughts swarming her mind.
But he steps back. Her hands fall back to her sides.
"An interesting proposition," he murmurs.
Lacey lets out a frustrated sigh and rolls her eyes. "Well, I'm going down to the Rabbit Hole for a game or two of pool—you do what you want."
"And will you come back?" There is a hollow note in his voice, a tiny sliver of fragility lurking in his lilting accent. He tries to hide it behind narrowed eyes and arched brow, but his hands give him away, white and stiff over his cane now.
"Maybe," she says archly, and is rewarded by the feel of his left hand grasping hold of her waist and pulling her close to him. His breath is hot and fierce against her cheek, his hand sending tremors through her bloodstream, and she is awake and alive and on fire, and she will never tire of this feeling, this draw that makes her run her hands up his chest and back onto his shoulders (where they belong).
"Remember my reputation," he warns her. "You don't want to see just how dark I can be."
"Maybe I do," she retorts with a laugh, and it's her turn to dance away, teasing him with what he can't have.
She pretends she doesn't see the way he swallows and looks away (not desire or lust; sorrow and hurt). She pretends it doesn't bother her to turn and leave him alone in his dark room. She pretends she can really walk away from him (even if it is only for a moment, an hour).
But she knows she'll be back. And she knows he'll be waiting for her (for Belle).
She comes back, but Mr. Gold doesn't. Not her Mr. Gold. Not her Dark One.
She gets back before he does (the Rabbit Hole is abandoned and silent for some reason), uses the keys he gave her and walks into the backroom. For a moment, she's tempted to explore, but the place is dusty and boring without Mr. Gold there. She heads toward the cabinet where he keeps the liquor, but before she can get there, she hears the bell over the front door tinkle.
"Mr. Gold?" she calls, ready to invite him to share a drink with her. The curtain flutters behind her when she pushes past it, and she can feel a ghost of a breeze on her neck as she stumbles to a halt.
Mr. Gold is standing in the middle of his shop, but he's not large and intimidating and magnetic. He's not powerful and calculating and wickedly clever. Instead, he's tiny and broken and wounded, and he didn't look this old even when he had to be helped up from the dirty road by the deputy.
"Mr. Gold?" she says again (and she hates the breathy sound turning her question into a whisper).
"Belle," she thinks he whispers, but then he looks up at her (he makes a valiant effort to gather himself, but he still looks brittle and hollow) and says instead, "Baelfire. My son. He's…he's dead."
And for the first time, Lacey doesn't know what to do.
He stands there, motionless, silent, and she thinks that if he moves, he will crumble away into dust. And all she can do is stand where she is and watch him slowly, torturously pick up the pieces of his heart and stitch them imperfectly back together in an uneven, bleeding mess.
She wishes she were anywhere else. She wishes she hadn't come back. She wishes she didn't care about him (this man who was supposed to be bold and dark and scintillating and who is, instead, complicated and mysterious and vulnerable).
She wishes she were Belle, so she could hold him and help him and heal him.
But she's Lacey. So she stands there, and she wishes. It's what she's good at, the only thing she knows, to wish and crave and luxuriate in what she has.
Funny. It used to be enough.
"There's nothing we can do." His voice is calm. His hands are steady. His eyes slide away from hers. "The trigger is magical, and once it's ignited, there's nothing to be done."
"I thought you were powerful!" Her own voice is a little bit shrill, and adrenaline races through her, but this adrenaline is not a good sensation. This is fear. Terror. The realization of mortality—and she doesn't like it. "You can do anything!"
Mr. Gold watches her, and there is more heartache in that look than any one being should ever possess. "I'm sorry," he says. "It's too late."
She watches him turn away, and anger obliterates everything else. "Would you say that if your son were still alive?" she demands. It's a cheap shot, a low blow, and she knows it even as she says it.
She shouldn't care. It shouldn't matter. He just told her she's going to die in a matter of minutes, and that should more than give her an excuse to lash out.
But his shoulders hunch in on themselves, armor he dons too late. He flinches, and Lacey wants to take the words back.
"I'm sorry," he says again (and all she can see is a man kneeling on wet asphalt before her, fleeing through glass doors, coming into her hospital room and looking down at their joined hands as if at magic). "If I could save you, I would. But even if you crossed the town line again," and he pauses to take in a shuddering breath, "you couldn't get far enough away in time."
"So…we're going to die?" A sob is hiding in the back of her throat, scrabbling to get free. He was supposed to give her immortality. She was supposed to have weeks and months and years to cure him of his aversion to touch, to seduce him into hugs and kisses and touches in the dark, to fall in love with him and make him see Lacey and have that be enough. They were supposed to be together forever.
"Oh, sweetheart," he murmurs, then firmly adds, "Lacey."
And then he is stepping up beside her and he is pulling her into his arms, and he only holds her tighter when her tears wet the handkerchief sitting in his breast pocket. She clutches at him, holds on as desperately as if she is drowning. She wants to beg him not to leave her, but she doesn't. Instead, she only tightens her grip on his jacket and feels the ground begin to come apart beneath their feet.
There are trees in the middle of the street, vines weaving through the shop's exterior, and grass sprouting through the floor of the front room. The backroom, though, is an oasis (one that's rapidly shrinking to nothing), and she stands in there with Mr. Gold and tries to ignore the fact that her world is being erased in front of her very eyes. "We're not from this world," Mr. Gold had explained. "The failsafe seeks to return everything to the way it was before the curse."
She wonders if that means she'll suddenly remember being Belle, just before the failsafe kills her (because she's not stupid and Mr. Gold is careful to call her Lacey but sometimes he looks at her and she's only Belle, and everyone else in town has multiple names and they don't remember her at all, and she knows, now, that Mr. Gold isn't the sort of man to make a woman up out of nothing). She wonders if she'll remember loving Mr. Gold before the end. She wonders if he'll realize that she maybe-kind-of-almost-already loves him (she wonders when she realized it, thinks it was when he took her in his arms and said her name and apologized, for the first time, to her instead of to Belle).
"Mr. Gold," she says. She's not quite sure why, because they've used up all their words and she's used up all her tears and he's just plain used up, going through the motions and pretending that he's all right even though his son is gone. But she says his name anyway, because it means something. Because she needs to remind herself she's still here.
"To the end of the world," he says, and he pours her a drink.
A couple days ago, that would have been enough to make her laugh and tease and try to corner him so she can finally figure out whether all those reserves of emotion he conceals would erupt and overwhelm and consume her should she kiss him. Now…it doesn't seem right.
"Come on, it'll help numb it," he coaxes, so she agrees, and reaches for the glass. But she's clumsy, and the cup topples on its side (wrong and broken).
The whole world is coming apart around them, but the spilled whiskey seems like the greater crime. Especially to him.
He's wounded and bent and brittle, but he recaptures a hint of his spirit, the rage and power she saw unleashed in that alleyway with Keith, enough to shout at her, to rend and destroy with his words, to remind her she isn't who he wants.
"I said I'm sorry!" she tells him, and she is. She's sorry they're going to die, sorry she couldn't hold him when he wanted to cry like he'd held her when she'd wept. She's sorry she's not the woman he wants her to be, and maybe she should be angry instead, but she can't summon up that spark of emotion. She feels numb already (even without the liquor), as if there should be more here. More between them. More to her.
But there's only her. Only Lacey.
Only Lacey, and a chipped cup he conjures up with far more reverence than he did the necklace she locked away in her apartment.
"That cup again," she sighs. But it means something to him, and he avoids her touch rather than crowds her now, and she wants to know what it means (even if it only has to do with Belle). So she tries to be as brave as he thinks she is (or was) and asks, "What is it?"
It just sits there, innocent and white with a few blue accents, that damaged rim the first thing to catch the eye. It doesn't transform into a magical potion or a weapon that can stop the earthquakes gouging through the town or some key to return everything to normal, to right.
It's just a cup.
"I'm sorry," he says, and he means it, she can tell (he meets her eyes with sincerity and his hands have stopped shaking and he's set his cane aside entirely). "Let's not fight."
He hands the cup to her (just like last time, only not, because he lets her pick it up and he doesn't cradle her hands to ensure she doesn't drop it). He picks up his own glass, taps it against hers, and Lacey watches him carefully.
She's not stupid.
Liquor comes in many shapes and sizes, but not usually from a vial similar to many he has locked away in his cabinet.
"It'll help numb the pain," he'd said, and she wonders whose pain he means. His? Belle's? Or hers?
But he's her Dark One. He's gentle where he should be vindictive and vulnerable where he should be ruthless and soft where he should be dark. He's not wild and untamed and dangerous as she thought he was. But he's Mr. Gold, and he came to visit her in the hospital, and he left her with a kiss she wishes she could repeat, and he wrapped himself up in layers he thought she would like, and he calls her Lacey even when he wants to call her Belle.
And they're going to die, anyway.
Lacey tips back the cup, and drinks the potion.
The transformation, when it comes, is sudden and complete. One instant, she is Lacey, the next she is Belle, but with all the missing pieces filled in. She doesn't blink, doesn't move, doesn't even breathe, because what if this disappears? What if she looks to her right and sees Mr. Gold and not Rumplestiltskin?
What if he sees Lacey and not Belle?
But he takes one look at her (just one, and she remembers just one glance from him, years ago, before he pointed his finger at her and named her his price). One look, and his molten brown eyes turn liquid and his face crumples (he's crying, and she remembers calling him back to her in a library and watching him try to hide his tears). One look, and already she's crying, too, her very soul aching with all that has occurred and all that has happened and all she was not there for. She promised him she would be waiting when he came back.
But she wasn't.
"Belle," he says, and it's the most beautiful thing she's ever heard (she remembers a hundred Belles, a dozen sweethearts, a handful of darlings, a scant few dearies, and too many Laceys; none of them sounded this open, this vulnerable, this needy). He's here, and so is she—he fought for her. He didn't give up and he came for her and he tried. He kept her close, kept her safe, kept her whole, brought her back, and she has rarely doubted his love, but she never will again.
Because he's the one waiting for her to come back to him.
Her hands are reaching for him already. He's warm and whole beneath her touch (he's bleeding all over her and this pawnshop, pricked full of invisible wounds, his heart gushing out lifeblood), trembling and shaking and quivering, and he is something more than Rumplestiltskin and deeper than Mr. Gold and frailer than the Dark One.
But still hers.
"Rumple," she tries to say, and names have power, but they are nothing next to touch. Nothing next to the feel of his lips welcoming hers, his arm encompassing her, his hand on her shoulder, his tears mixed with hers, his breath as necessary as oxygen. This is power. This is magic. This is love.
The kiss doesn't last long enough (eternity wouldn't be long enough; she remembers asking for it, though). But she's still touching him, and he's still holding her close, so it's enough.
But not for him.
"I'm so sorry," he says brokenly. His eyes hold all the loneliness and grief he's been fighting off for centuries—with spinning, with planning, with deal-making, with darkness. His masks are gone, obliterated, crumbled away into nothing, and there is only a bereft father, a man, standing before her. He's hollowed out and empty, and she's his only lifeline, and she holds him as tightly as she can (so he doesn't slip away from her; so she doesn't slip away from him). "I'm sorry. I didn't want to wake you up to die. But I needed you."
"You lost your son," she breathes (and she remembers a man, fierce and angry and brave, wrestling Rumplestiltskin away from a docile Dr. Whale).
He freezes. Still. Vulnerable. Oh so very fragile.
Her hand caresses a path from the top of his hair to the side of his face to his neck. Gentle. Soft. Reaffirming. (Possessive, taking back what Lacey—Regina—tried to steal from her.)
"I'm so sorry," she says, because she didn't even get a chance to know Baelfire and he knew only Lacey and he never got to realize his father was still there, trapped behind the vestiges of the Dark One. Rumplestiltskin came all this way for him (sent her away and almost drove her away again, all for the sake of his son), but there will never be any closure. Never be forgiveness or atonement. Never be restoration, and how can she not weep for him, for them both?
She touches him, this broken man she's fallen in love with so many times, and she feels his heart break (and how many times can a heart break before there is nothing left but fine dust even magic can't repair with a wave of a hand?).
There are no words for this, but she doesn't need to heal him. She doesn't need to make him stop grieving. She just needs to be here. To hold him. To love him. To grieve with him.
"I'm sorry," she whispers.
The Dark One is immortal and powerful enough to destroy an entire world, unable to be contained or bottled or caged. But Rumplestiltskin is a man with a heart and a past and a capacity for love so vast and irrevocable that she can only try to live up to it, so she is able to wrap him in her arms, keep him steady in the circle of her love, take his battered and bleeding heart and hold it safe inside her own.
"I've failed." His tiny confession (false and flawed and as wrong as he can sometimes be, but so sincere it weeps for him) flutters its way inside her, writhes deep, and all she can do is turn her face into his neck (her own breath against his pulse point reminding him to keep breathing for her) and hold him harder, tighter, longer. "I've failed."
More than anything, she wishes she could take his tears and his loss and his guilt and heal them, show him the man she sees in him, erase this fractured self-image of his with a brush of her lips, with no more than her mouth covering his, warmth and pressure and heat combining with the truest of loves to break his most disabling curse of all.
But she can't.
So she holds him, and she strokes him, and she lets her tears fall on his neck, and she feels her heart beat in time with his, and she hopes with everything she has that her touch affects him as deeply as his does hers.
He conjures up a coat for her, beautiful and long and concealing—but most importantly, all Belle. Lacey's somewhere deep inside her, Belle thinks, hidden and restrained and seeping away into the cracks. The darkest, ugliest, flimsiest parts of herself, and she does not like knowing what lies in the shadows of her own soul, even if they are fading already, muted and dimmed. But she looks at Rumplestiltskin, and she wonders if his curse simply brought out the darkest, ugliest, flimsiest parts of him, if he's been living with them staring back at him every time he looks at his reflection for untold centuries (and maybe that's why he hates himself, because he's forgotten all but the wickedest facets of his character; maybe that's why he can't look in a mirror without cringing and turning away or shattering it into a million pieces).
"The people who triggered the failsafe have holed up at the harbor," he says, standing there before her with the coat still in his hands, a bright splash of color against the black of his suit. "If Emma and her family have managed to stop the destruction of Storybrooke, as it seems, then I imagine that's where they'll be."
Truth, in Rumplestiltskin's case, is often about what remains unsaid, and Belle hasn't failed to notice that ever since he gathered himself up enough to step away from her and collected his cane to walk outside (to see why they hadn't been overtaken by the forest without magic), he's refused to speak of anything but the royal family and what they must have done to save the remnants of their world.
There's so much she wants to say in return. So much she wants to bring up and go through and correct (hurtful questions shouted at him in the rain while he knelt before her, so full of pain and terror; a cup hurled across the room, heedless of his own heartache; a rendezvous in an alley with a sheriff who once offered to buy her for an hour; laughing encouragement of violence and dismissive scorn of his gentleness). But he is grieving and his mask is paper-thin and she doesn't know if she should risk him losing it again.
There's a wall between them. A barrier that's never been there before. The memory of being strangers. The memory of one of them being a stranger and the other one not. The memory…no, just memories. Memories standing between them so that she's afraid to speak at all and he's afraid to move forward and hand her the coat.
Always before, she's been the brave one. But she's never hurt him so badly before.
He swallows, then he sets the cane aside and steps forward (and he is oh so very brave, for her), offers her the coat. "Here," he says softly. "If you'll have it."
A small smile creases her lips, because she remembers that. "Why, thank you," she replies, and his own smile (faint, pale, an echo of a past action) emboldens her. She matches his step forward and turns so he can help her into the coat. It's warm and soft, but it cannot compete with the feel of his hands, fingers brushing against her arms, her shoulders, as he slips the garment on her, his palms resting against her shoulders when he's done. She leans back into him, and she's never done this before, but it feels familiar (Lacey leaned back when he clasped a diamond necklace around her throat).
"Belle," he whispers (her name thrums with blatant power that makes her eyes flutter shut). "I love you."
She wants to weep. She wants to laugh. All she can do is turn and throw her arms around him and place a quick, shuddering kiss to his mouth. "I love you, Rumplestiltskin," she replies (and this has always before been a confession, a bold move, but now it's a reply, because he said it first). "Forever," she adds, but that only sounds like an echo of Lacey, not of their long ago deal, so she says, "In any world, in every world, I love you."
He doesn't believe her (he never does). His lips quirk (his eyes still haunted) and he places a warm kiss on her brow, but he doesn't say anything. She wants to tell him that her heart broke when a trapped and tired nobody heard his dying confession over the phone. She wants to tell him that Lacey drank the potion because she wanted to make him happy. She wants to tell him that it's easy to love him and that she's fallen in love with him a dozen times—a hundred, over and over again, in a Dark Castle and a stately house, in Sherwood Forest and the forest around a well, in two libraries, in a dungeon and Granny's Diner, in his pawnshop and his carriage.
She wants to tell him she's sorry she hurt him (sorry she became the weapon she vowed she'd never be, the chain that tied him down and distracted him from his son).
But Baelfire is gone, and that is far more important than any apology she can make.
So she smiles at him and tilts her head until he bends his own to kiss her again, lips familiar and sweet against hers (Lacey was right—the feel of him does overwhelm and consume her, and it's all hers, for he ensured that Lacey had no part in it). "I love you," she says again, and maybe that will be enough to cover everything else, to salve the wounds she inflicted.
His smile, this time, is a bit more real.
She wraps her hands around his elbow, clings tight, paces her steps in time with his, and it reminds her of a walk to a town line. Reminds her of a walk away from a bar on a dark evening. Memories converge and mingle, linear except in how they tangle and snarl one against another, Lacey's self-interest clashing with Belle's selflessness, carelessness contrasted against courage, Lacey's hunger for excitement a dark shadow of Belle's own thirst for adventure.
Her breath comes short and stuttered, because she doesn't want to be Lacey, to be so insular, so wrapped up in herself that she's heedless of the hurts and the strengths and the needs of someone else, so bold and thoughtless that she moves from one thing to the next without any forethought or planning, without common sense or integrity. It's not her, but it must be, because she can feel those inclinations inside her now, lying in wait, ready to insinuate themselves ever more deeply into her conscious mind.
"Belle," Rumplestiltskin says, and she's not sure if he has something to say or if he only senses her distress and wants to reassure her he's there.
And he is here. At her side. Head tilted toward her. A heated, solid presence walking with a tap-step-step as familiar to her as an imp's dancing prowl once was.
"Rumple," she replies, and she stops. They're in a hurry, rushing to the harbor so he can find out what happened to save the town and banish the encroaching forest and return the streets and buildings to normal—but he hurries more out of habit than real curiosity, wants to know because collecting knowledge is just what he does. There's no real urgency, no immediacy, because he's adrift in a sea without purpose or goal or direction. Baelfire is gone, and she can see the desolation in his eyes, hear it in his voice, feel it in the desperate neediness of his every touch (needing something to hold onto, someone to hold him back). Baelfire is gone, and he has no reason to hurry, no reason to care, no reason to keep going.
When she turns to face him (keeping hold of his arm because it's impossible to even contemplate letting go), he matches her move, action and reaction, mirror images of one another.
"Rumple," she says again, because his name is easy and apologies are hard and they are both so close to collapsing should the wrong word escape her (wounds and scars and hurts riddle them both so full of holes that she's afraid they will crumple and fall to the ground any second now).
She wants to tell him it will be all right (but how can she when his son is dead and they cannot change that?). She wants to convince him she truly does love him (but how can she hope to succeed when it's taken the Queen—taken Lacey—only days to undo the decades of inroads Belle has made on his heart?). She wants to throw herself in his arms and cling to him and beg him to reassure her that the terrible things she did and said and thought as Lacey (and she hates the very name) aren't truly part of her and that they were just cruel, clever snares planted so cunningly within her by the evil Queen (but how can she ask that of him when he tries so hard not to lie to her?).
So in the end, she can only hold onto him and step close enough so that only the starkly contrasting colors of their coats can tell where she ends and he begins (blue against black, skies and seas against shadows and starless space). In the end, she can only let out a little of what she feels, say a fraction of what she thinks.
"I didn't…I'm not her," she stammers. "Our cup, and magic, and it's not the wrong people that you know," (because out of every memory, this matters the most, that he might think her the wrong person for him to know, that he might think she does not truly care for him so long as he has his magic) "and magic isn't what drives me away. I mean…you won't lose me." (An ineffectual promise, she knows, when he already has lost her, again and again and again, and for a man who's been so deeply hurt before, a man who thinks he will always be abandoned and left behind, she is astonished and awed and amazed that he is willing to open his heart to her again.) "I do love you, Rumplestiltskin, and names don't change that."
"Shh, shh." His hand comes up, between them, fingers brush against her lips, stilling her mass of unintelligible words. "Belle, sweetheart, this isn't you. Regina did this to you. You are the woman in the hospital, who offered to help and were happy I didn't die. You are the woman standing here, apologizing for something I should be sorry for—for not protecting you, for letting this happen. For not being able to fix it." He looks away, but only for a second, an instant (hiding his regret, his guilt, somewhere shallow and close, an unfilled grave occupied mostly by Baelfire). Then his eyes return to hers and she does not understand how she could not have loved him immediately, at the first glimpse of these worn and haunted, tender and sweet eyes. "What happened was regrettable," he adds, awkwardly. "But you're here, you're all right, that's what matters."
"You didn't give up," she tells him, and here, finally, are the right words. Benediction and forgiveness and approval all at once, and her eyes shine with fervent light as she smiles up at him. "You love me, and…you fought for me."
The right corner of his mouth turns up slightly but it doesn't reach his eyes (the expression he gives when he wants to smile but cannot quite remember how). "Yes, well…"
Little words that mean nothing. A message garbled and unclear. Monosyllabic words and shifting, sliding glances full of dark desires and shadowed regrets. But he's the deal-maker, the spinner of words, the imp who can play and twist and mold them into presentations and temptations and misdirections—so that he cannot find words with her, that he cannot use them as he always does with others…that means more than pretty speeches and flowery declarations of love ever could.
They begin walking again, side by side, steps matched. The sea is audible now, waves in the distance, salt scenting the air, and then, very quietly, Rumplestiltskin says, "You were worth it. You are worth it."
And he can find the right words after all, sometimes, at the perfect moment, the most beautiful instant (can touch her so deeply with the things he says only to her; and she remembers a phone-call and a dying confession and his constant, protective presence at Lacey's side even while his son was in town).
Belle blinks away tears, and sets her brow to his shoulder, and knows that they will be all right (they will heal and move forward and one day not be so broken and bent and misshapen). His breath stirring her hair, the ripple of his arm tightening beneath her hand, the smile finally beginning to reach his eyes, these are more restorative than any number of magic potions or fairy wands.
"Belle," he breathes (prayer and salvation and plea, and all of it making her heart dance shyly in her chest), and that word is the most powerful of all, for with it, he says everything she needs to hear.
Her hand slides down, and she weaves her fingers through his.
"Rumple," she replies. And it is enough.
"You're not coming back. Are you?" The question escapes her, and she knows the answer already, because it's there in his eyes, in the way he avoids her gaze, in his hands fallen away from hers. It's there in the spell he has already prepared for her, the words of goodbye he spoke so quickly, the explanations he spilled at her and David's feet.
His son is gone, and so is he.
Belle wants to weep. She wants to scream and cry and shout and take him by the shoulders and shake him until he realizes that she needs him, she wants him, she loves him and forever is more than a word.
But his son is gone, and he is lost and desolate, and he is also brave and noble—everything she has always wanted to be; everything she has always seen in him—and how can she tie him back now when she has always refused to do so before?
She wants to run back to town, give the cloaking spell and the instructions to the first person she meets, and then rush back here. She wants to jump aboard this pirate ship that holds only bad memories and now carries the two who populate her nightmares (a Queen with a cage and a prison cell and mocking laughter; a pirate with a hook and a gun and dead vengeance in his eyes), wants to cling to Rumplestiltskin's side and prove to him that she is here for him and she will not leave him and she can be his reason to live, to come back, to learn to smile again.
But his son is dead, and all that's left to him is the search for atonement.
"He's gone," he tells her (and even now, there is a note of awful confusion, bewilderment, as if he cannot fathom an existence without his Baelfire), "and I didn't even get the chance to say goodbye."
She wants to tell him that the man who was brave enough to come rushing to Dr. Whale's defense, the man who wrapped his arms around Rumplestiltskin (when he could have shouted at him, could have pointed a weapon at him, could have simply knocked him aside, could have done anything but chose instead to put his arms around his father) to keep him from darkness, the man who berated him for avoiding him—that man was good and whole and he would want Rumplestiltskin to live. He would not want his father to die, to leave behind everyone who still loves him and seek redemption in death.
But she remembers looking into Rumplestiltskin's eyes when their cup lay in shards at his feet and his heart lay crumpled and bleeding in his chest. She remembers brushing past him in an alley when his shock and his grief and his bitter resignation (and of them all, she hates that look the most) were scrawled all across his features. She remembers hurting him, cutting him to ribbons and smiling at him so beguilingly all the while. She remembers desolation in his gaze and bereavement in his posture and loss consuming his soul.
So she places her hands on his shoulders (to hold onto him, to store up another memory for the coming days of loneliness, to keep him here with her for just one more fleeting moment), and she says, "I understand. But I also know that the future isn't always what it seems."
Once, she thought she traded away all hope of happiness in return for her family's survival.
Once, she thought she would never see her beloved Rumplestiltskin again.
Once, she thought she had failed in her desperate desire to mean more to him than magic.
Once, she thought she was lost and alone and afraid and the only future for her was a basement cell.
Once, she thought she would be happy with lust and dark affection and the thrill of excitement.
But here she is now, and she is alive and free and with the man she loves, and she refuses to believe that this is all there is.
She has hope. She always has hope, and if there is one thing she can give him (if he can no longer trust her love, thanks to a kiss that brought no memories and a shattered cup and a flirtatious reflection of herself; if he cannot see the light, because his son broke his heart and rejected him and died all before he could make amends), it is the capacity to hope. The ability to look into the future and see more than darkness and shadows and horrors.
His son is dead, but she is still here, and she will not let him go.
She will drop her hands (in a moment, when she has summoned her strength and what bravery she has left to her), and she will walk away (so she does not have to watch him sail out of her world; as brave as he thinks she is, she has not yet been able to be the one to watch him leave), and she will do as he asked (because it is a good task, a noble goal, and he trusts her to do it and that means something), and she will wait for him (and this time, she will be there, for him, when he returns).
She will do as he wishes and stay behind.
But she will not let him go.
He's hers. He was hers the instant she gave him her forever, the moment he first put his hand on her waist and escorted her into their future. He was hers when he did not punish her for releasing his prisoner and he smiled at her hug. He was hers when he first told her of his son and let her go free. He was hers when she came back and her kiss brought what she saw in him to the surface. He was hers when he kissed her and brought her home and gave her a second library and smiled at the picnic she made him and let her sleep curled up next him on a couch. He's hers, and she will never give him up.
She wants to tell him all of these things (release the great, boiling surge of emotion and determination and grief seething within her, threatening to carry her away), but she can't. There are too many words, and it will take a lifetime to say them all, and both of them are near to shattering, so in the end, she only tells him the most important thing of all.
"I will see you again," she promises him.
And finally (so soon, so incredibly soon after all she has done to him), he remembers how to smile. A watery, weak smile shining faintly through tears. But it is a smile, and this, too, is hers, for her alone.
And he pulls her forward, and she presses toward him, and then, so very terribly late, she gives him the kiss she's been waiting to give him since standing on opposite sides of a town line. He holds on desperately, possessively, and she matches him, move for move, thought for thought—and she is Belle, not Lacey, but they are matched anyway, dark shadows shot through with light, magic grounded to reality, space and stars next to clouds and blue skies, contrasted one against the other but so very similar, neither one possible without the other.
If she could freeze time, in that moment, with his lips so warm and insistent on hers and her form held secure and safe against his, she would. She would freeze it and she would stay there for days, for weeks, for months, long enough to memorize his every move, his every breath, his every inch of skin, his every layer.
But she is only a single ordinary woman, and eventually she has to pull away.
His brow rests against hers, for just a moment, but it is enough.
Because he's not letting go either.
So she is strong (because he was strong enough to face Lacey, over and over again). And she is brave (because he was brave enough to keep coming for her in the hospital). And she walks away (because he walked away to find his son, but he came back, and one day, he will again).
Her shoulders shake with sobs, her cheeks are wet with tears, her heart is cracked down the middle, but she is wrapped in the coat he gave her, and there was the barest sliver of hope in his eyes when she dared to stop long enough to tell him that his son would be proud of him, and even if he is gone, he still touches her.
It's enough, for now, until the day he returns and takes her once more into his arms.
And then, she decides, she will wrap him in her arms and she will never walk away again, because she knows only one thing for a certainty.
The End...at least until Season 3! :)