35. Quite the Conundrum

A peace settled between Belle and Rumple in the days that followed. Things were still tense and awkward, but there were no more harsh words or snapping accusations. There was a balance, and they walked the line carefully, but both recognized the significance of what such a truce meant. They were getting better. There was still plenty of anger and bitterness between them, but they both no knew that could overcome it. Eventually.

Encouraged by the shift, Belle began to cheer up. Nothing could mend the absolute sorrow of the loss of her son, but she began to explore more, and she even ventured outside. It was getting warmer, far too late to work the gardens, but Belle began taking stock of everything that was there, determined to bring it to life the next year. It felt good to plan ahead and have a purpose, and that gave Belle even more life.

She began to spend more time in the stables as well, tending the sheep and the horses. They were fed and watered through magic, but the horses still seemed to enjoy the occasional treat Belle brought them. The sheep were vibrant and healthy and ran wild in their large pen. Belle leaned on the gate and watched them, smiling as two of the young rams charged and head-butted each other. It felt like old times, and Belle was grateful for it.

Her exploration extended to the rest of the castle too. She wandered aimlessly, letting the hallways twist and turn and lead her to wherever. She felt no fear now, knowing she would always find her way back. She felt more at ease now and began to view the castle as her home.

One day, about two weeks after the incident, Belle happened upon a room at the top of a spiral staircase. She could hear noise on the other side and peeked through the door curiously. "Oh!" She breathed, startled to see the room full of shelves and tables. Everything was covered with parchment and books and other strange objects she couldn't quite name.

She stepped inside, her curiosity pulling her, only to bump right into Rumplestiltskin. She stumbled, but he reached out and steadied her with his arm.

"Are you all right?" He asked, making sure she was balanced before letting go. Belle nodded and Rumple side stepped to the nearest table and placed the book he'd been holding on top of it. "Did you need something?"

Belle shook her head and stepped in further looking around curiously. Rumple watched her for a moment, then said, "You can stay, but don't touch anything."

Nodding, Belle moved toward the center of the room, peering over to view something in a jar. It moved, and she jumped back with a shriek. She chanced a look at Rumple, who bit back a grin, and turned to work on something on a work bench.

Stepping away from the strange creature, Belle walked around the room, observing everything closely.

The room was large, but crowded. There were shelves that lined the walls full of books that looked old, magical, and dangerous. Shelves that held no books were full of vials, some empty and some not, and there were papers, strange ingredients, and things scattered all over the bench, table, and floors. In the corner sat his spinning wheel, and Belle felt a pang as she remembered nights sitting by the wheel with her husband and son. That had been a happy, simpler time, but nothing was simple anymore.

She walked over to the wheel, careful not to trip on any of the miscellaneous items that were everywhere. She sat at the wheel and gently ran her hands over the spokes, remembering.

After a moment, Rumplestiltskin appeared behind her and he brushed his fingertips down her arm. "Did you, um, need something?"

She turned and looked at him curiously, then realized that he probably was working. She felt bad for disturbing him and apologized instantly. Rumple's eyes widened, and he was quick to reassure her of the contrary.

"No, my dear," Rumple said, "You're anything but a disturbance." He rocked on his heels a moment, then said, "What have you been doing?

Standing, Belle shrugged. "Not much, today," she said as she brushed away invisible wrinkles from her blue dress. "I was just wandering around. I'm not as familiar with the place as I'd like to be so I've been trying to learn my way around." She smiled sheepishly, "I found you on accident."

"I'm glad you found me," Rumple said with a shy, boyish smile. Belle blushed.

"Me too."

They lapsed into an awkward silence, and Belle rubbed at her arms, unsure of what else to do. After a moment Rumple cleared his throat and spoke again. "Are we still at odds?"

Belle blinked at him and opened her mouth to speak. Then she shut her mouth. Were they? Things were better, but were they at odds? She didn't want to be, she realized. She was tired of all the anger and hurt that divided them. She wanted to work her way back to him, and she wanted him to try the same for her.

"I don't know," she said at length, settling for the truth. She saw the hurt flash across Rumple's face and reached out to take his hand. "I don't want to be."

"You've only just been able to stand being in the same room as me," Rumple stated, and the sorrow in his voice left her heart aching.

"I know," Belle agreed. "But maybe we could…try?"

Rumplestiltskin glanced back at her with a raised brow. "Try?"

She nodded, not sure where this was coming from. "Maybe we could have dinner tonight? Try to work our way toward…..not being at odds." She squeezed his hand and added, "I haven't cooked for you in….a while. Do you even eat?" She asked, moving her hand over his flat stomach. "Or do you just stay in here all the time because you think I won't want to see you?"

He lifted his hand and slowly rested it over hers. "I eat sometimes," he said as he glanced down at their hands on his stomach. "When I remember. The magic makes it easy to ignore things like that."

"Is it wise to use magic like that?" She asked, looking away shyly, "I'm afraid I don't know much about your magic or how it works. I don't know anything about you anymore, really."

"You didn't want to," he whispered. She blinked up at him, tears pooling in her eyes.

"Am I not allowed to change my mind?"

He nodded. "You may do whatever you wish, Belle. You know that."

She stood silently for a moment, then nodded resolutely. "I want to have dinner with my husband tonight," she whispered, fighting back her tears. "Will you join me?"

"Yes," he breathed, and it was the closest they'd been in months. Belle felt a longing to kiss him, but she pushed it aside. Romance would come in time, but for now she was still hurt. She was still angry. But she wanted to work past it.

She wanted her family back.

"I'll see you tonight," she whispered, withdrawing her hand and slipping out of the room. She felt Rumplestiltskin's eyes on her the entire time, and she shivered in something akin to excitement. She had a meal to plan.


Despite her resolution to not wear the fine gowns in the wardrobe, Belle found herself standing before it, pondering on whether or not to wear a new gown for that evening. It was a major thing to be having dinner with her husband. It seemed so insignificant because they'd done it together every night for nearly fifteen years before, but now it meant something significant. This wasn't about eating a fine dinner prepared in a magical kitchen. This was about starting anew. This was about reaching a point of forgiveness and forgiving. They desperately needed this, andpart of that meant not rejecting the things that Rumplestiltskin deemed important.

So she stood in front of the wardrobe, trying to figure out whether to stand on the principles she'd established in her anger, or if she should allow herself to enjoy dressing in something other than her old, dirty cleaning dress. She shut her eyes and reached her hand in, pulling out a simple burgundy dress. She held it up to her, and after another moment of debate, turned and threw it onto the bed and stripped out of her blue dress. She put the other one on, glad it didn't require assistance as she knew some dresses did, then pulled her hair into a twist at the nape of her neck.

She practically skipped to the kitchen where she made a simple stew for dinner. She was too nervous to do anything more complex, but decided it was not a big deal. Her husband apparently didn't even eat regularly anymore. She almost envied him, glancing down at her stomach. She didn't eat much either, but the improved variety of food had caused her to gain a little weight. It wasn't anything she was too concerned with, but it was noticeable, and she wondered idly what Rumple would think. Would he even notice?

She pushed that thought aside, muttering a small curse under her breath. She was still angry. This wasn't an issue that could be fixed over one simple dinner and a few fluttering thoughts. It was something much more, but this dinner was a first step in the right direction.

At seven o'clock dinner was ready, and Rumplestiltskin appeared in the great hall in a yellow silk shirt, brown vest, and his now signature leather pants. Belle allowed herself a moment to appreciate him as she brought the tray to the table, then chided herself. The point of this dinner was to try to learn about her husband, not to admire his improved wardrobe, though she had to admit she was curious as to why he'd chosen the attire he donned.

She placed the tray on the table and offered him a bowl of stew. He took it and sniffed appreciatively. "It smells wonderful," he offered, "I can't remember the last time I've had something cooked."

Belle's gaze shot up and Rumplestiltskin winced, realizing his error. "I didn't mean-"

Belle held up her hand and put her best smile on. "It's all right," she said softly, "Let's just eat."

With the exception of complimenting the meal, Rumple remained silent while they ate. Belle alternated between taking small bites of stew and staring at the man across from her, wishing she could summon enough courage to ask her husband everything she wanted to know, everything that was still sour between them, but the words refused to come. Finally Rumplestiltskin looked up.

"You look pretty," he said softly, giving her an appreciative smile. Belle glanced down curiously at her dress, having momentarily forgotten that she'd dressed up for the occasion.

"Thank you," she beamed. "You look...good in leather."

It was his turn to glance at himself. "You think so?" He asked skeptically. "I feel a bit foolish, really."

"Then why wear it?"

Rumplestiltskin shrugged. "To look the part. I have a reputation to maintain, as well as to develop. No one will respect a Dark One who doesn't dress like he knows what he's about. I'm a showman."


Rumplestiltskin blinked. "Why what?"

"Why are you a showman? Why not just make deals, or whatever it is you do."

Rumplestiltskin sighed. "The Dark One has a long history of being...as impressive as he is terrifying. The Dark One before me was more...subdued; he slithered about like a serpent. I want to be different. I want to stand out."

"You want to impress people," Belle said, pushing her bowl away from her. "You don't want them to remember Rumplestiltskin. You want to make a spectacle of yourself so they don't remember the man who sacrificed everything he was for his son."

"There wasn't much to Rumplestiltskin."

"There was more than enough to Rumplestiltskin," Belle countered, "Rumplestiltskin has always been enough."

Rumple said nothing, but the look on his face said what his words couldn't. Belle stretched across the table to grasp Rumple's hand, and they shared smile. After several moments, Rumple sat back.

"I have to show you something," he said as he stood. "If you'll come with me."

Belle nodded, her curiosity growing by the moment. She stood and followed Rumplestiltskin out of the great hall. They walked for a few minutes, and Belle was certain she'd never been in this part of the castle. Rumplestiltskin walked as if he'd grown up here, the long halls and stairways not making him falter once. Finally they came to one last staircase and Rumplestiltskin turned to face Belle.

"I've been working on this since I became the Dark One," he said, "It was meant for all of us….but I want to give it to you now. Just," he paused and looked away, "Please promise me you'll use it."

"I promise," she said, and though she feared she may regret making such a promise without knowing what he had planned, she found she wanted to trust him. He'd given her reason to, with sparring the life of the thief called Robin Hood, and with trying to open up to her at dinner. The least she could do in return was trust him this once.

Taking her hand, an unexpected gesture on his part, he led her up the stairs, smiling in relief when he heard her gasp.

"I've never seen this many books in my life," she whispered as she turned around the circular room, staring in awe at the floor-to-ceiling shelves that were currently only half-filled.

"I'm not done," he said softly, "I've been collecting. Trading, buying. Many of my smaller deals are for books for you."

"Rumple, I can't-"

"You promised," he reminded her quickly and she realized that he probably thought she meant to reject his gift.

"No," she said, squeezing his hand, "I mean, I can't believe you did this. This is incredible."

"It's always been my dream to give you a library," he said. "And I know you haven't had a new book in a while. I thought perhaps, since we're…trying, it might be the best opportunity to give it to you."

"Thank you," she whispered as tears slipped down her cheeks. Rumple quickly reached up to brush them away.

"Why tears, dearest?"

She shook her head. "I'm just-I… thank you," she whispered. "This means so much to me."

"I would do anything for you," he said softly. "Please tell me you know that."

She nodded, slowly meeting his eyes. "Yes."

He sighed, relieved. "Good."

They stood there for a long moment watching each other, then Rumplestiltskin moved away. "I have a deal I must attend to," he said softly, "I'll leave you to the conundrum of which book to choose first."

Belle couldn't help the laugh that escaped her. "Will you find me when you return?"

"If I'm not back too late, and if you wish it, then yes."

She seemed appeased. "Maybe you can tell me more about your deals."

"If you would like."

She paused. "I would."

He smiled softly, then was gone. Belle turned to the shelves of books and clapped her hands together in glee. She had quite the conundrum indeed, she thought. But it wasn't about the books. She could feel herself falling in love with her husband all over again and as hard and as fast as she had the first time. But there was still so much to work out between them. Walking over to the nearest shelf, Belle began to browse the titles. Perhaps the difficult choice of choosing a first book could distract her from her heart and its sudden, overwhelming longing for Rumplestiltskin.

Author's Notes:

First of all, I want to apologize for the delay. I've been at a conference for the past three days (and not a fun con. A work con. Boo!) And I thought we were going to get home around 5 EST. We didn't get home until 7. (How does a trip that's suppose to only take 3.5 hours end up taking 5.5?!) And then I had some other things I had to do and by the time I got home it was midnight.

Better late than never, I suppose.

I will also go ahead and give a warning now: I am moving early next week, and things are going to be a bit hectic with closing, moving, and the beginning stages of redecorating/renovating. So, while I totally plan to keep up the posting schedule, if things start getting delayed by a day or so, that's why. I don't think I'll have any problems getting chapters posted, but I'm letting you know just in case.

I'm glad you all liked the previous chapter! I will be honest, it was quite different than what I had originally written. I made a LOT of last minute changes, and I'm so pleased to know they were so well received! Thank you!

Chapter 36 should be up Friday, August 1st! (How is it already August!?)

Disclaimer: I do not own Once Upon a Time. All characters, scenes and dialogue that are familiar belong to ABC, Adam Horowitz, and Eddy Kitsis.