Rumplestiltskin hadn't touched her in a month.
At night, despite sharing the same bed, an ocean of sheets spread out between them, clearly marking 'his' and 'hers' where before there had only been 'theirs'. If Belle moved, whether in sleep or otherwise (to comfort him from the nightmares that plagued him, that woke him and made him jolt or scream or claw the headboard in terror), Rumplestiltskin would carefully shift her back, gentle elbow nudges and fingertips carefully on clothes and not her. Or he would move, curling on his side so close to the edge of the mattress that she would roll away to prevent him from falling onto the floor.
She'd tried to kiss him several times before he left in the mornings, planting herself in his path, hiding his keys or cane, leaning against the door to prevent him from sneaking past her. Her efforts had been rewarded (a few times, but it was better than nothing), but the kisses had been quick, a brush of lips, nothing but mouths touching.
He didn't run his hands up her sides, or bury his fingers in her hair. He didn't take her hand or her arm when they walked. Her foot brushing his under the table lead to him shifting, mumbling apologies before he smoothly lead the conversation back to whatever they'd been talking about.
They still talked. All the time, constant chatter, conversations that lasted until dawn, phone calls when he was away, but it was all they ever did (he always told her that he loved her, and it was never a lie, and he said it, and it should have been enough for her, but it wasn't, it never was).
Belle had to hunt him down to steal a kiss (and it did feel like a theft, taking what he obviously did not want to give, forcing him into a situation where he wasn't comfortable and only gave in so he could leave).
It hurt, realizing that her true love didn't want her anymore.
And he couldn't, didn't, because how could he? She was a silly little princess, always searching for the good in people where there sometimes wasn't good to find, and even then she still tried. How boring she was, little Belle in her big library, a book constantly in her hand or peeking out of her bag. It didn't matter what she read, because that's all she did, and it couldn't possibly be enough to keep the attention of the all powerful Rumplestiltskin.
She lived with him, loved him, and it wasn't enough.
Maybe it never had been.
Maybe she'd been looking, been hoping when hope hadn't been hers to take. She'd caught his attention well enough, but at some point everyone had been under his magnifying glass. It was keeping the attention, keeping him interested and intrigued, that was the problem. And it was a problem now, because she could talk until her throat was sore but he was off the couch the moment her words failed.
Comfortable silence had once been a large part of what made them... what made them. They hadn't used to need to fill the air with conversation and words and clever little phrases that hung for a moment before crashing and shattering around them. Now the silence was heavy, weight on her shoulders, her mind, heart pounding as she watched her fears come alive right before her eyes.
Rumplestiltskin was bored with her.
And he didn't want her anymore.
That would never not hurt.
Because it always hurt. It hurt when he left while she was cooking breakfast, not even a goodbye and food grew cold while it waited to be thrown away (because she couldn't eat that much, she'd made it for them, and now it was just her). It hurt when he stayed out later and later, so late she went to bed alone, cold in a climate controlled house under thick covers that never seemed to hold her just right.
It hurt most of all when she woke up, the empty bed yawning before her, the left side crisp and smooth, the pillows cold, and Rumplestiltskin distinctly absent.
Belle stared at the smooth covers, the large expanse of space that hadn't been filled in the night (that was never filled, never anything more than emptiness to remind her- that always reminded her because she could never forget).
She wanted to reach for the blankets, yank them back. Wanted to crumple them up and toss them to the floor and leave them for him to find. But such things would not resolve the issues (clearly there were issues, but she did not know, did not understand, so the fault had to lie with her), and so Belle stood, carefully made the bed with as much precision as she had in the Dark Castle, and padded into the bathroom.
She stood in the shower until her tears were warmer than the water (maybe that was why he was gone, maybe she shouldn't cry- he'd had more than enough of his fill of crying princesses). She dressed, a simple black skirt and a deep blue shirt (maybe that was why... she didn't understand much of the fashion in this world, so much skin showing, all legs and arms and sometimes even bared breasts but Belle just couldn't bring herself to wear the skirts above her knees, or yank her collar lower and that wasn't appealing or beautiful, not to the men of this world, and Rumplestiltskin knew so much more than her about these things).
Belle made breakfast (for one, because she had learned), cleared the dishes, using the dishwasher Rumplestiltskin had patiently showed her how to use to clean them (there weren't enough dishes to fill it but it had been a week and if she waited much longer the food would stick permanently). Like always, she sat and lingered over tea (waiting, always waiting). Like always, she walked to the library, opening the door at precisely seven thirty on the dot, booting up the strange computers Rumplestiltskin had set up for her.
Maybe that was why, maybe that was it. She was the same every day, boring and bookish and now she talked entirely too much to fill a silence that had never bothered her before but that weighed entirely too much now, and Rumplestiltskin needed excitement and adventure, both of which she'd used to want and sorely lacked. She'd never done anything she'd wanted to. One trip to a different land was a far cry from seeing the world.
Belle was not an adventurer, or a thrill-seeker, or an action hero, and perhaps that was what Rumplestiltskin needed (or even wanted), and now that it was clear she wasn't what he thought, he had no interest in her anymore.
True love was still love, and love dwindled. It died. The flames that once had been a roaring inferno could burn out, too hot, too large to last forever.
She'd promised a forever that hadn't been hers to give.
Belle had meant her vow, her deal of forever, but she'd saddled Rumplestiltskin with it, forced his hand, forced him to stay by her side until her forever (for hers would be over long before his) was done, and maybe that's what he'd been doing locked away in his shop at all times.
He was looking for a way out of their deal.
Rumplestiltskin was done with her, and telling her to go hadn't worked (because she went back, she always went back, even if he shouted and roared or even pleaded). He would find another way, and he would because he was Rumplestiltskin and he could find anything, and Belle would have to go. And so she would.
If he wanted her gone, truly wanted her away from him, then she would leave.
Because she loved him, so much, but it hurt to know his love was no longer hers.
She didn't deserve it, not an ounce of it, but he'd needed it, and so she'd given it. It had been hard to get him to accept it, and then his world had expanded, if only a little, to include more people, people he hadn't thought to care for before, and he didn't need her anymore. He couldn't possibly want the love of a silly, boring little princess that clung to hopes and dreams.
Rumplestiltskin, the Dark One, the most powerful man in all the worlds, a man so feared his very name could bring people to tears had no need for a girl such as Belle in his world. In his house. In his life. Their deal was done, he was finished, and it was time for her to go.
Packing some clothes in a suitcase (his, because she had nothing of the sort, nothing to offer, nothing to leave or forget because in this world she was nothing) nearly broke her resolve, nearly broke her (her heart pounding, beating too hard in her chest in a way that made her physically sick, left her shaking and out of breath) but it needed to happen. If she left quietly, if she slipped out and never looked back it would be easier on him. He wouldn't have to see her, or her tears (because they left trails down her cheeks, splashing onto the cold bed to soak it, and those she would leave because those alone were hers).
Belle wouldn't leave a note, or call on that phone he'd given her- and that was certainly being left, she didn't want him to feel he had to reach out to her in any way- because even though she was going, even though she would be the one to leave, she was the one who didn't understand.
But she was Belle, and he was Rumplestiltskin, and he knew everything she never would.
She would never know, and that would never be okay, but this was for him, because he was so much better now. He could do better, certainly better than a falsely brave princess who'd been the first to see the lonely man beneath the mask (the mask was gone now, everyone could see the man, and he hadn't been lonely since).
But it hurt. It hurt so much she just couldn't stand it, and then she couldn't even stand, sinking to her knees on the floor, sobbing out loud into her hands because it just hurt.
And then he touched her, then he held her, his hands light on her shoulders, face painted in confusion and fear, fingertips brushing against her temple, tucking her hair behind her ear.
"Oh Belle," he breathed (she wasn't sweetheart, she hadn't been in a long time). "What's happened? What's wrong?"
And wasn't that the question.
"I don't know," she said, shoving him away (it felt so nice in his arms, but he was only comforting her, and that couldn't be anything more than pity). "Whatever I did, whatever I didn't do- I just don't know."
Rumplestiltskin stood, following her around the bed. He stopped, still as a statue when she flinched away. "What do you mean? What did you do?" He sounded so lost, so afraid, but she couldn't tell him because she didn't know and maybe he didn't understand yet.
This hadn't been how she wanted to do it, but he was here now, and it still needed to be done (and maybe that was brave, maybe that was strong, but it would never be enough).
"You don't have to say anything. I don't expect anything from you and I'll never ask for a favor or a deal. I'd promise you would never see me again-" There her voice cracked and she had to pause and swallow the questions that burned in her throat. "But I can't, so I'll just do my best."
Rumplestiltskin sank heavily onto the bed (filling it for the first time in weeks, but it hadn't been theirs in a long time and now no part of it was hers). "You're leaving."
He spoke quickly, flatly, no trace of relief or happiness or anger in his voice, and it was a voice she knew well. He was trying to sort out his feelings, and he would hide them once they were sorted, once he realized what he felt, but she wouldn't wait for him to figure it out because she already knew and hearing it just might kill her.
"Thank you, for everything." The suitcase was heavy in her hand (she was only taking what she'd bought herself, the rest was his to throw away or keep). She could have gone then, but she had to say it so he knew she didn't blame him, wouldn't hold it against him. "I understand." (She didn't know, but she understood.) "I'm sorry I wasn't... what you wanted or thought I was."
His head snapped up from the cradle of his palm, and if her tears weren't so thick she could have looked him in the eye one last time.
"Not what I wanted? Belle-"
"It's okay," she hurried to assure him. "I know-"
"You don't know, Belle, you've got it all wrong."
Yes, she had gotten it all wrong. He couldn't have been more clear about that unless he'd told her (but that wasn't what he did, and she knew that better than anyone and had learned to read between the lines).
She should leave, go now before he said anything, because she didn't want to hear it. She wanted to know, some part of her deep down still didn't understand and wanted to stay, but it hurt so much already, and hearing it would not help heal the ache.
"Belle," he breathed, breath ghosting over her face, hands fisting in her hair. "I love you. You are everything I have ever want. You are all I will ever want, or need, and more, so much more, than I could ask for. Sweetheart..." Belle thought he would kiss her then, a proper kiss, a goodbye to remember, but he only rested his forehead against hers and shut his eyes. "I won't stop you," he said, and he sounded broken and hollow and Belle had been wrong because that hurt more than any pain. "If you want to leave, I won't... But I couldn't let you think that. Not that Belle. Not ever that."
The words exploded from her before she could stop them, all the fears and doubts colliding and clashing and finally escaping to spew from her mouth.
"But I'm nothing," she cried, wanting to turn away even as her hands came up to cover his. "I'm a stupid, crying, old fashioned princess who has nothing, who's done nothing, who will never be more than nothing, and you deserve-"
"Nothing," Rumplestiltskin whispered. "I deserve nothing. And you are not, nor have been, or ever will be nothing, my Belle. I don't deserve you, any part of you." Then she was in his arms, properly, fully, entirely. "But as long as you want, as long as you allow me, I will fight for you, fight to be something close to a man, so that maybe one day I almost could deserve you."
Belle truly didn't understand anymore, but the cold hard lump in her chest melted in the warmth of his arms, her tears dried with his words.
"Tell me," he begged, face buried in her hair. "Tell me what I did to make you think you weren't enough for me. I don't ever want to do it again."
She'd started, and now she couldn't stop. Belle clutched the fabric of his suit in her fist. She could feel his tie, soaked, against her cheek.
"You wouldn't touch me," she whispered, body shuddering (from the sobs, from the still lingering fear, she really couldn't say, but it shuttered all the same). "Or kiss me, or hold me. You were always gone. You didn't want to be here."
He sat, pulling her down to the bed with him, holding her in his lap, arms tight around her waist and she knew she wouldn't fall, not while he held her.
"Even here," she said. "In our bed, you wouldn't let me hold you when you were afraid. I couldn't touch you, or look at you, before you would run, and you hardly ever came back."
Rumplestiltskin was quiet, that silence falling again, but Belle knew this silence. He was afraid to tell her something, so sure that once he told her, she would leave him (and she'd nearly done just that before he even spoke, and so she would listen).
"I killed you," he said, voice shrill and broken. "Every night I saw myself kill you, your blood on my hands. Even when I woke up it was still there, so much blood, and it was all my fault Belle. I couldn't do that to you- I won't," he said viciously, desperately. "I won't hurt you. I'll die first."
He'd been afraid. He'd been terrified of hurting her, and Belle could just weep from it if her tears hadn't already been spent. She threaded her fingers through his hair, lowering his head to rest it upon her shoulder. Rumplestiltskin was shaking, hands whispering over her back, but he didn't let go, didn't release her, only held her, touched her, clung to her.
"How long have you been having these dreams?"
"Months," he admitted. "I can't even remember dreaming anything else. Just me, monstrous me with your blood on my hands. Oh gods Belle I couldn't even tell when I was awake anymore. I couldn't sleep, it all felt so real."
Belle wasn't afraid. She'd never been afraid, not of living with him, of loving him. She'd been afraid of losing him, of not being enough- good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, interesting enough- for him, but she'd never, not once, feared for her life. Frightened, yes a few times, because he was the Dark One, and they'd all heard the legends, but never actually truly afraid.
"I love you," she murmured against his forehead, lips brushing his skin. "I love you, I love you, I love you. And I am not afraid of you, Rumplestiltskin. You would never hurt me."
He looked up then, eyes deep and brown and so afraid. "But I might. Oh Belle-"
She shook her head. "No," she insisted. "No. You never do anything you don't want. You're stubborn, and you're smart, and powerful, and you're trying, so hard, to be better for your son, and you are nothing I deserve."
Then her lips were on his, then his hands were at her hip, her spine, the back of her neck, behind her knee as he shifted and turned so they were sprawled on the very center of the bed, laying on the very line she'd drawn in her head. Rumplestiltskin draped himself over her, every inch of him against her.
"Don't say that," he pleaded. "You deserve-" He kissed her temple. "-anything-" Her jaw. "-you-" Her nose. "-want." He kissed her lips, gentle, eyes hooded, open to bore into hers.
"I want you. I'll always want you."
The suitcase vanished from the end of the bed.
"Then you have me. You'll always have me." He kissed her again, sighing through his nose, arms sliding under her to hold her, plaster himself to her, and she could feel every inch of him, and every bit of it was the truth.
"I love you." His lips landed on her jaw, her ear, her cheek, her forehead. "I love you, I love you, I love you. I will always love you, I will always want you, and I will always, always need you." He pulled away, enough to look at her, their noses brushing gently. "I should have told you. I'm sorry, Belle, so please, don't ever think like that, not ever again."
His touch left her body aching, her heart pleasantly sore and full when he touched her, held her. He kissed every inch of her, from her fingertips to the crown of her head all the way down to her toes, everywhere in between worshipped with his fingertips or hands or lips, and he showed her, he told her without saying a word how much he loved her.
And that night, with Belle curled around him, limbs tangled and fingers fisted in hair as they sprawled on the mattress, pillows and sheets askew, Rumplestiltskin slept soundly throughout the night.