It was true love. He would like to deny it because it suited him better to believe she was in cahoots with Regina. Easier to let himself think it was all a charade, a trick, but Rumpelstiltskin knew the truth. The feelings he had for Belle were such that he never expected to feel again, if he had ever felt them at all. He had loved Milah, she was his wife and he had adored her, and yet Belle was so different. As beautiful and courageous certainly, all the best of his previous beloved and yet so much more besides. Milah had struggled to love the man Rumpelstiltskin had become, and yet Belle seemed able to find a place in her heart for the monster he was now. It ought not to be possible.
In looks he was not handsome, if he ever had been as a man, he certainly wasn’t as the Dark One. In temper he was that much worse, and his heart so black and charred it was surely beyond saving, so Rumpel had always thought until she came into his life.
Green-gold fingers went absently to his lips as he recalled what had gone before. True love’s kiss, it was the only thing strong enough to break even the Dark One’s curse. He rarely thought of what he was as such a terrible thing. His status gave him power, control, the abilities he needed to get to his son, his Bae. Without the power of the Dark One to wield, he would never see Baelfire again, Rumpelstiltskin was sure on that, or he had been until Belle.
Believing in oneself was easy enough with all the powers that Rumpel possessed, but as a man he was a coward, useless and hopeless. Belle did not seem concerned by either the darkness in his heart or how lacking he might be as a man if he became one again. She said she loved him, the touch of her lips bringing back his former self proving it completely to Rumpelstiltskin, and yet he could not give in.
Accusing her of being in league with Regina was foolish. The idea had to be considered. After all, his one-time student was one for pulling pranks, and causing him to lose his powers, making her the all-powerful one, that would suit the woman they called the Evil Queen all too well, Rumpel was sure. Still, he didn’t really believe for a moment that Belle was working for her, not by choice, not even by coercion. Regina put the idea in her head, but sweet innocent Belle meant him no harm, and up until he threw her back into her dungeon, she had believed them to be in love.
“Love,” the word echoed from the Dark One’s mouth as he thought of that moment, Belle’s lips against his own.
It had been quite the rush, a feeling the like of which he had never known before as her sweet affection enveloped him, surging into all the spaces, pushing the magic out and replacing it with its own power. If true love were the most powerful magic, and Rumpel knew that to be true, he wondered at being afraid of letting it replace what he already possessed. Without practical magic he would never see his son again, that had been his first thought, and a hundred other thoughts after that, but he had to wonder if he were being honest with himself.
Looking towards the door, Rumpel considered his options. He turned away again in a moment. He couldn’t give in, couldn’t let that little wench into his mind, into his heart. Fingers pressing to his temples, he backed against the wall as if putting more distance between himself and Belle, all of an extra ten feet, would make a difference to her effect upon him. If he threw her out entirely she would still haunt his dreams, both asleep and waking. She had wormed her way in, crept under the door like the mouse she seemed to be, and now he would never be free of her. Rumpelstiltskin never thought he would be the one locked in a cage, at least not until the time was right, but he was more imprisoned than Belle now that she had his heart, his stupid weak little heart.
Tearing out of the room, he hurried down the steps to the dungeon, unbolting the lock with a wave of his hand and flinging the door aside the same way. Belle didn’t even flinch as he stalked into the room and faced her. She was tear-stained and sad enough, but defiant as anything as soon as he entered. Up on her feet, she stared him down like a true adversary. Rumpelstiltskin would have been proud of her if he could bear to look at her more than a second at a time.
“Get out!” he told her, eyes to the ground because it ought to be easier.
That might have been true if she weren’t standing so close, smelling of roses and looking like an angel. She didn’t offer to move, to leave as he told her to. He thought of repeating himself but never got the chance.
“Why?” she asked. “Why do you want me to leave? Because I love you?” she challenged him.
Rumpel’s temper rose and yet just as soon as he brought his eyes up to met hers he lost the fight inside himself. It did make him angry that she had so confounded him, with her talk of love and her powerful kiss, but more than that he was frustrated by the situation he found himself caught in. He wanted her, he cared about her, the first person he had felt anything real for in more years than he cared to calculate. This beautiful, exquisite woman who could fall in love with a beast like him, it was quite incredible, and yet he must keep his distance, must remove the threat to his power.
“I don’t want you anymore, dearie,” he said coldly, looking away because he had to if he was ever going to succeed in throwing her out. “You speak falsehoods and you annoy me,” he lied through his teeth and they both knew it.
“Falsehoods?” she echoed, laughter almost creeping into her words, albeit the humourless scoffing kind. “You don’t believe that. I know you felt it, your curse lifting. Of all people, you know that means this is true love. It wouldn’t work if it was anything less,” she insisted, fighting to meet his eyes even as he looked everywhere but at her.
Rumpel wanted to argue, would have given anything to be able to, would’ve given more to be able to kiss her again but he couldn’t. The love of a good woman, a woman like Belle that he could never deserve but ached to try, it ought to be everything to him, but there was something more for Rumpel. Baelfire was his son, his blood, the only connection he had left, the only person he ever broke a deal with. He had to make it up to him, bring his boy home, spend the rest of his years repenting, repaying. He couldn’t do that if he let Belle distract him, if he let her love him and take away the power he so needed.
“True love it may be, dearie,” he told her, much more quietly than he had been speaking before, finally letting his gaze meet her own determined look. “But I have something larger to lose than my magic if I allow you in,” he said, hand over his battered under-used heart. “My son.”
Belle frowned at his confession. He had mentioned his son, spoken of him with affection and yet been vague about what exactly happened to the boy. If there was a way for Rumpel to get his child back, then of course Belle wanted that too, she wanted him happy more than anything. What that had to do with her loving him, with his dark magic, she couldn’t understand.
“You think you need magic to bring your son home?” she asked curiously.
Rumpelstiltskin visibly swallowed hard.
“My boy, Baelfire,” he nodded then. “He is lost to another realm, and if I am to find him, I need my power,” he said softly, eyes becoming like solid ice a second later. “You are a distraction, dearie, one I can ill afford, so you must go.”
The idea of her causing him never to find Bae was enough to harden Rumpel’s heart against Belle in an instant, but she would not be so easily cast aside. She truly loved him. His happiness meant as much if not more than her own. With that being true, Rumpelstiltskin ought to have realised that Belle would make sacrifices for him, even if he could make none for her.
“I don’t want to distract you, Rumpel,” she urged him to understand, a hand reaching out to him, but he very deliberately backed up a step.
It hurt to have him back away again, but she understood. He feared the loss of his power, as she suspected, but he had good reasons. Rumpel needed the power of the Dark One to find his son, the only other person in the world that really mattered to him. Belle understood that, and was determined that her true love not have to make a choice between the boy and her. He could have both, he would have them.
“You like to make deals,” she smiled then, knowing she could quite easily play him at his own game. “The one you made with my father tied me to you, to this place, for the rest of my life. Now you say you want to break that agreement? Well, I don’t”, she said firmly. “So, we renegotiate.”
She had him intrigued, Belle knew she did. His eyes lit up with curiousity and intrigue as he stared at her, head tilting as he wondered where her plans tended now.
“Go on,” he prompted when she did not continue immediately.
Belle bit back a smile, mindful of looking too triumphant before anything was firmly settled. Still, she had his attention, and she had a plan.
“I want to stay here with you, I want to be allowed to love you, but I do understand what it would cost,” she nodded earnestly. “If you let me stay, let me help you get to your son, to bring Baelfire home maybe, then I will promise not to do anything that will cause you to lose your power.”
Rumpelstiltskin considered her proposition carefully, as one always should with potentially life-altering deals. So many jumped in with both feet, never mind the consequences, but not Rumpel. He knew the dangers, and so much more than most other beings could ever understand. He would love for Belle to stay here. She was distracting and a temptation, no question on that, but she wanted to help him and to love him. She could be an asset in his life, in so many ways, so very many joyous ways. The fact remained of course that he already had a way to get Bae back and doubted Belle could be of any further help in that area. Of course, he had also thought no-one in the world could ever love him again, and she had proven him wrong.
“If I allow you to stay,” he said, emphasis on the ‘if’, “you will do as you are told, still clean and polish, keep the estate as I wish it,” he told her definitely. “You may read your books, attempt to assist me in my endeavours to find Baelfire, but you will not stir out of the castle grounds anymore. I will not have Regina telling tales.”
“I don’t want to go anywhere, you silly man,” Belle laughed more out of relief than anything else. “Haven’t you been listening? I only want to be allowed to stay. I only want to help you, and... and love you,” she said definitely.
Rumpel didn’t mind hearing those words. There was a skip in his heart that made him feel a hundred years younger whenever the word ‘love’ passed her lips, when she smiled at him just so. Belle was a tonic in his life, one he never knew he needed until she came around. Now she wished to stay, to keep her distance enough that he would not lose the powers he needed, but to love him because it was all she could think to do. She could be dangerous. In fact, Rumpel could prove a danger to himself as sorely tempted as he was by the vixen, but that was by the by.
“Then you shall stay,” he said, turning towards the door, pausing on the threshold. “But, if you dare to try to kiss me again or work any sort of trick, you will die.”
He couldn’t look at her when he said it. Such an empty threat would never carry if he had to meet her eyes. As it was she had to know he wasn't entirely serious. To admit love for a person and then threaten their life, it would take a mad man or a monster to mean such words. She had already proven she believed him to be neither, his dear sweet Belle.
“You have my word, I will keep my side of the deal for as long as you keep yours,” she said somewhere behind him. “And we will find your son, Rumpelstiltskin. Together, I truly believe we can do anything.”
He smiled a sad smile at that, hoping rather than believing she was right. He had a plan in motion to get to Baelfire, but it was far from guaranteed or fool proof. It hinged greatly on Regina doing as she was told, something the Evil Queen was not prone to doing, especially of late. Perhaps there was another way and if anyone was willing to help him find it, Rumpel was sure Belle would be the one, his love, his saviour... He frowned a little at the wording that came to mind, and then headed back to his private rooms for now. He needed to think.