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The first time she comes back, he’s trying too hard.

His hands shake; golden thread knotted and uneven in trembling, uncertain fingers. His back is to her, (stupid cowardly fool), because looking her full in the face would be far too much.

And of course he’s overjoyed to see her, of course he is. He can barely breathe for gladness that she’s home, that she’s back, and smiling at him with wide and rose-red lips. The world can go to Hell for all he cares: her hands are on his shoulders, and his heart is pounding, skin humming and singing her song.

The first time she comes back, he pretends not to care at all.

He’s not unhappy.

The first time she comes back, her eyes are bright, the familiar curiosity and wondrous intent more than his old and feeble granite heart can bear.

Because no one ever comes back. Ever. He drives people away and good riddance to them. And yet here she is, returned from the great wide world, with a basket of straw and new mud on her white shoes, and he didn’t even have to go looking.

She came back.

And then she’s kissed him, softly, (silly, perfect, shining, foolish girl) and sent him whirling and spinning into an old and comforting insanity, breaking an ancient and already-shattered deal all over again, and his shouts echo from the rafters. And he’s still trying too hard.

It’d be too easy to take her hands and forgive every little betrayal.

It’d be too easy to kiss her pointed little nose, her eyelids, the curve of her jaw, and brush aside every suspicion in the wonder that she came back.

But Rumpelstiltskin fears nothing more than he fears the truth in the impossible, and so he dismisses this wonder as a lie, and moves onto the next order of business. He throws her in a dungeon, and means to never let her go.

If he never lets her out again, feeds her through the chute under the door, keeps her caged, pretty little bird, then she need never leave or come back ever again.

---

The first time he comes back, she’s as angry as she’s ever been.

Belle has carefully cultivated a defiant but not aggressive form of anger, the kind men almost enjoy seeing in their women. They want inner strength, the kind without tearing claws and sharp teeth.

“What are you going to do to me?” she asks, and no tremble wavers her voice.

What they have is True Love, even while it shreds her soul and shakes her bones, and Belle is nothing if not practical. Hurting her is killing him: she knows him too well.

“Nothing, dearie,” he smiles, his tight, grim smile, “We have our deal, and nothing has changed. You will remain as caretaker until the day your heart stops beating.”

She is stunned.

When she came back, she assumed something would change. Surely he couldn’t have her here, knowing what they know?

But he points to the door, “To your duties, dearie.” He’s using too many pet names, trying to see her as another pawn, another stupid little girl to be muddled and twisted into knots with his clever, dancing fingers.

She doesn’t see him for weeks.

Not even a peep: no peel of manic laughter, no flash of dried-blood leather and green grey skin. The Dark Castle might as well stand empty, for all the life it holds.

This is her punishment: exactly what she bargained for.

A caretaker, nothing more. He wasn’t looking for love. The word is bitter, now, ashes on her tongue, and she discards it more with every long and lonely day. She is sick, in heart and mind and soul, and every day hurts more.

After two weeks, breathing through her constricted chest has started to physically pain her.

And still he does not come, even when she calls for him, even when she makes dinner and leaves it for him well into the night, even when she lights every grate in the house and goes to bed with them still burning.

Food is eaten, fires are extinguished, and still Belle sees nothing of him.

So she starts to write: long, empty letters to her father, to Gaston, who at least never ignored her this way. She burns them at night, knowing that no one will ever read a word, hear a single sound from her again. She writes to the Queen, her friend the Queen, who put her in this mess.

That’s when she starts seeing marks appearing: scorch marks on the furniture, indents as if from clenched fingertips in the soft wood of door frames and armchairs.

Her final letter, the last words she puts on paper in that empty, soulless house, summon him in the darkness. She writes him a deal that rings like a threat, like an ultimatum.

Because Belle is lonely, cold, locked in a dungeon for ten out of every twenty-four hours and so very tired of all of this.

But she has one role, one power, which he cannot strip from her.

You’re a coward Rumpelstiltskin
And that’s alright, I suppose, because nobody’s perfect.
But this has gone on long enough.
Let me go or come back to me, it’s your choice.
If I don’t hear your answer in three days, I’ll come for you. And you cannot hide from me, Rumpelstiltskin, believe me, there is no corner of this castle where you can hide from me. I’ll come for you, and you know what comes next.
This isn’t a threat; it’s a deal, because you love those so very much: your companionship or my freedom in return for your powers.
I’m offering you a choice because I love you, you cruel and selfish bastard, and this is the way it is done.
I’ll be seeing you soon, either way.

Your Belle.

She rewords it a hundred times, trying to strike a balance between firm and commanding, and the blooming sadness she feels in her chest. She can’t live like this. She’s dying, here, a little more every day, and it’s time to decide her fate, one way or the other.

She leaves the letter on the dining room table, and avoids the room for the next twenty-four hours.

She swears she hears him, late in the night, laughing or crying or simply shouting, screaming at the top of his lungs like the beast he truly is, she cannot tell.

In the morning, she rises slowly and dresses in the dark.

She reads her own words with shaking fingers, not able to bring herself to read his reply on the back, to know his answer one way or the other. But he is not here, and she is still completely alone, and that in itself is response enough.

Then leave, dearie, I won’t stop you.
My powers are far more important than the housework of a half-trained little princess.
Farewell

R.

He doesn’t even sign his name. He can’t even give her that small token of power over him, that small acknowledgement of trust or alliance. They were friends and then lovers, and now they are strangers, with no more between them than any other pair.

So she folds the letter in her pocket, and quietly packs everything she might need in her basket.

She takes cheese from the pantry, some fruit and a few skeins of water, one of wine. She steals a pouch of gold from his office – if the bastard can’t be bothered even to come and say goodbye, then he can be missing some things when he returns – and gathers every spell he has on his shelves, every small enchantment she can find that doesn’t look volatile or dangerous.

She takes the few ornaments she has any attachment to, even the rose that still sits perfect and unblemished on the dining room table.

She’d be lying if she claimed she wasn’t trying to goad him, just a little bit. One more confrontation would be preferable to this empty, acquiescent silence.

She even takes a reel of golden thread, and hides it in one of her spare shoes.

He never said she couldn’t take souvenirs.

Then she calls out, at the top of her voice, “Goodbye, Rumpelstiltskin!” she screams it through all corners of the castle, knows he will have heard her. He hears everything.

Then she turns her back, and marches out without a single backward glance. She said she wanted to see the world, and she won’t sully this new chance with thoughts of the past, with dreams of willing captivity.

---

The second time she comes back, he doesn’t believe it.

And he’s right to, of course he is, he’s clearly insane and she cannot be here.

He’s making a potion, a small and trifling thing to turn a woman’s unfaithful husband into a snail, easy to squash beneath her foot.

And he’s drinking. He won his bottomless flask from a team of dwarves in a rather tasty little deal, and it’s a lifesaver. He’s one of the only creatures in all the Realms who can withstand Goblin whiskey – even their King stays away from the stuff – and he plans to enjoy that little talent.

“This isn’t right, you know.” She’s peering over his shoulder, her scent still that intoxicating mix of cinnamon and cherries, eyebrows raised as they always are when she disapproves.

He ignores her.

He’s been ignoring her since the day she came back, and even now that she’s gone, it’s easier to pretend that his True Love is a girl who never existed at all.

“You know it, too.” She sniffs, “It’s a small and spiteful thing you’re doing here.”

He turns to her, eyes narrowed, and she’s sitting on his workbench, legs swinging as they always used to under the table.

Then he reaches for the phoenix ash, and his hand goes right through her.

“You can listen or you can ignore me, Rumpelstiltskin,” she says, with a small and knowing smile, “But you know I’m right.”

“You always are, dearie,” he admits, because he’s talking to a drunken illusion, and he can admit things in his own mind even if he cannot say them to anyone else.

“Hmm,” she hums in agreement, “Then stop.”

“I made a deal.”

“For a cow and three sheep. Unless you’re taking up farming, I don’t think much will be lost if you return them and move on.”

She’s right, and he knows it, and this is a worthless, petty little deal meant to cause some random menace and remind him of his true evil. Meant to throw some suffering onto someone else, allow another to destroy their own love, so that he can laugh at himself in the process.

Belle always did make him admit too much.

---

The second time she thinks he’s back, it isn’t really him at all.


She’s asleep in the forest, hoping to all the Gods that it won’t rain, curled under her little blanket and cursing her belief that she could make it to the next town before midnight.

She ran out of food yesterday, and she’s freezing, and, truth be told, she’ll be amazed if she wakes up at all tomorrow morning.

Maybe, when she closes her eyes and curls herself into as small and warm a shape she can, she murmurs something like “I wish this would end,” or “I wish I could be happy,” or even “To hell with true love, I wish I couldn’t even feel it anymore!”

Maybe she’s certain it was the last one, but it doesn’t matter at all.

Because she’s exhausted, and freezing, and her heart isn’t even simply broken: it’s been smashed and crushed into dust, clogging her lungs.

She’d thought that ransacking the castle and marching out of there with her head held high would make her feel better. In fact, out here in the big wide world, everything is simply too sharp, too harsh and violent. She can’t breathe for missing him, and she hates herself for it.

It doesn’t matter if she wishes for the whole world to be swallowed in thunder and fire. The only creature alive who can mutter ‘I wish’ without fear of retribution.

The only magician she’s ever known with the power to hear and heed heartsick wishes is the one in the Dark Castle, and she knows for gods damned certain that he’s no longer listening.

So it’s impossible for her to feel that telltale shiver of magic across her skin, that makes her curl and tremble, murmur “Leave me alone, Rumpelstiltskin,” in her sleep.

Silly little girl: for five seconds, she believes she’s back in her bed in the castle, in the room he gave her before he tried to set her free. She thinks he’s right by her bedside, manic and hyperactive and excited, waking her an hour too early because he’s bored and wants his breakfast.

And she smiles, the warmth in her chest so longed-for and wonderful.

But then her eyes flutter open, and she feels the branches and small stones digging into her muscles, the ache in her joints, and the illusion is shattered.

Rumpesltiltskin has not come for her.

And she is still a lost, lonely, broken woman, alone in the forest.

She rolls over, wondering if movement will shake her sudden fear – because she’s not afraid, not at all, Belle is brave and if she can’t be so now then she might as well never be – and feels she must still be dreaming.

There is a tiny woman staring at her, a kind smile on her pretty face.

She can’t be larger than Belle’s hand, and she is watching her with the warm sympathy of a gentle mother, of a wise and caring grownup to a frightened child.

“You called for me, honey?” she prompts, and Belle’s eyes blink open properly. She sits up, crosses her legs, regards the creature: a fairy, yes, certainly, and blue as a summer sky.

“I’m sorry,” she shakes her head, because Belle is done with deals and magic tricks, “I didn’t.”

“Yes, dear, you did!” the fairy laughs, “You made a wish upon the blue star. And here I am.” She gives another warm little giggle, and Belle has to smile, her cheeks aching because the motion is so unfamiliar after months of melancholy.

“I’m sorry, you can’t help me.” She replies, but oh how she hopes she’s wrong. Rumpelstiltskin would have a potion for this, a spell to make her forget that she’d ever even known him, let alone loved him. But Rumpelstiltskin is not here and he never will be again, and this fairy cannot do what he could.

“I can, if you just believe it so.” The Blue Fairy says, “You’re hurting, dear, and it rolls off of you in waves. But it doesn’t have to be this way.”

“Are you here to make a deal?” Belle asks, “Because I know better.”

“I am not your former employer,” the fairy assures her, “My magic is of the brighter, sweeter variety. I can grant your wish, and I ask for nothing in return.”

And Belle is clever, too clever for her own good sometimes, and she knows better than that. Who could know better than the girl who sold herself and was consumed by flames for her troubles how expensive a simple spell can be?

All magic comes with a price: Belle learned that the hard way.

And yet.

“Could you turn back time?” she asks, hating the almost mocking, bitter little tone in her voice that is all Rumpelstiltskin.

“I’m afraid not,” the fairy shakes her curly head, “No one has that power.”

“Then how about removing my heart from my chest?” Belle asks, and while she’s heard of such magics, heard of women who tore out the hearts of their former lovers and crushed them in their palms, Belle doesn’t want this for herself.

She asks as a test, to see what this creature is truly made of.

Too much time spent around a deceitful and wicked soul, a coward and a liar, has made her wary and distrusting. If this fairy offers to remove her heart, then her magic is truly no better than the darkest that Belle has seen.

But the Blue Fairy again shakes her head, and she looks so sad, so pitying and sympathetic, that Belle wishes she were human sized just so that she could hold her.

Belle needs a genuine, honest embrace more than anything else in the world right now.

“No, dear. Of course not: that is the blackest kind of spell. I cannot change your human heart and soul, but I can make them irrelevant, if you wish?”

“And... I would feel no more pain?” Belle asks.

“It will be as if you had never even felt what you have. A distant memory.”

“What do I have to do?”

The fairy smiles, a warm and delighted smile, “Come with me, and join us.”

“Us...?” Belle frowns, “Wait, you want me to become a fairy?”

“Want is not the right word,” the fairy comes in close, so she’s in front of Belle’s face, and there is that sympathy again, that motherly kindness that Belle needs so very badly, “I have no agenda for you, Belle, I just want you to be happy. And you can be, if you become one of us.”

And the offer is almost obscenely tempting. Fairies don’t suffer true love, and they don’t sleep alone in forests or ever, ever have to wonder, confused and lost and friendless.

Fairies are a nation unto themselves.

They are powerful and happy and good, and Belle has never wanted anything more.

The second time Belle believes that Rumpelstiltskin has come back, it isn’t him at all.

And so Belle doesn’t feel any fear when she nods, smiling around childish tears of relief, of love and gratitude and homecoming. The Blue Fairy laughs with her, shares her joy, and waves her magic wand.

Belle shrinks, and yet grows, and feels herself begin to glow and sparkle and tingle all over. She is five inches small but only by her own will.

She has a new admiration for her saviour: the Blue Fairy could be a hundred miles tall, and yet she chooses to be tiny, unimposing and delicate, to hold back and never, ever scare a single soul.

Belle’s dress has become something else, the turquoise fabric suddenly wide at the hips and then hanging in long tassels around her legs.

She is dressed as a fairy, glowing the same shade of green-blue as her eyes, and beaming like the sun.

That is the day that Belle leaves her life behind.

And when she thinks of Rumpelstiltskin, all she feels is a deep sadness for him, an exterior kind of pity for a suffering creature, as easily swept aside and lost as dust in old velvet curtains.

---

The third time she comes back, Rumpelstiltskin is appalled.


He’s had run-ins with the Blue Fairy’s minions before, when they’ve arrived to help the same desperate wretch, when people have hedged their bets and called for every myth they’ve ever known to help them.

He’s about to kill the flighty little thing, turn her to the dust she should have been for centuries now and take charge of this situation.

But then she spins, and he knows that shade of green-blue, that chestnut hair and admonishing expression. “Belle?” He doesn’t squawk in surprise: that would be undignified, not to mention a little bit transparent.

But godsdamn it, he’d thought her long gone, thought her lost to him forever, thought her dead.

This is so much worse.

At least, if she were dead, he wouldn’t have to look at her. But no, she floats in front of him, grown to a more human size than a fairy usually did, but then Belle always was more human than most people.

“Rumpelstiltskin!” and she looks so fucking happy to see him, all bright eyes and smiling, inhuman mouth.

The human they’ve both come to exploit stands between them, ragged and wretched and desperate, and he glances between them with a raw and unconcealed terror.

“Dearie,” he turns to the mortal, “I would advise you leave us alone a minute.”

“But-” he stutters, “My mother-”

“Will live until next sunset,” Belle interjects, kindly, “You have my word, all I can offer until a more permanent arrangement,” she shoots Rumpelstiltskin a look, “Can be made.”

“Oh, thank you!” the mortal makes a pathetic little bow, and scurries off back into his home, leaving Belle and Rumpelstiltskin in the dusty village square, face to face and entirely alone.

“Oh, I’m so glad you’re alright!” Belle almost gushes - since when does she gush? - and flies toward him, embraces him tight.

Rumpelstiltskin just stands entirely still, rigid, and even her smell is different.

She used to smell of rainwater and freshly laundered sheets, of lavender and sunshine. Now, a sickly sweet scent of powdered sweets, of nectar and honey clings to her skin. She smells of sugar-coated lies and a kind of sparkly, self-righteous magic.

She flies back, and suddenly her frowning smile is heartbreaking and familiar. “There’s no need to be rude, you know.”

“What happened to you?” he asks, and tries to keep the hoarse horror out of his tone. No need for her to see that he gives a damn, no need for her to see.

“I got magical!” she grins, does a little pirouette in the air, “What do you think?”

“I think that that dress bears a remarkable resemblance to a jellyfish, dear.” he responds, “And that you’d better be gone in the next ten seconds, if you don’t plan to become a pile of ashes.”

He couldn’t really do it, but she doesn’t know that.

She doesn’t know him, no matter how much she might think she does.

“Oh, now, there’s no need for threats.” she shakes her head, and looks at him with such sympathy, such hopeful understanding, that she almost looks human again. Almost.

“Not a threat, just an observation.” he replies, mildly.

She’s not his Belle, the woman who became a ghost in his hallways, who broke his curse for all of a moment, who he’s missed like a severed limb every moment since he lost the sensation of her lips on his.

She’s not his Belle: she’s something far worse now.

“The Blue Fairy came to me, and now I have magic!” she giggles, almost brainlessly, and Rumpelstiltskin feels sick to his stomach.

They have taken Belle’s mind as they took Bae’s body.

She has taken them away from him.

When he finishes his curse, when all the pieces fall together and this world is buried in stardust and lost memory, her fate will be worse than most. He will make the Blue Fairy live forever in cold silence, without any of the warmth or love she has coveted since time began.

He doesn’t need this deal, not really, the boy is not quite selfish enough for what he needs, and if he has to say one more word to this creature who is not his Belle he will kill something.

So he simply stares at her a moment, hard, and says “All magic comes with a price. I hope it wasn’t too high for you to pay.”

It’s the most genuine thing he’s said to her since before he sent her away.

He turns to stride off into the darkness, vanish into a cloud of noxious smoke, but she stops him with a cry of his name “Rumpelstiltskin?”

He spins, nasty sneer set in place, because he’s said his bit. He’s already spoken his one appeal to the memory of the girl he knew, and now he can look at her and see nothing but the nauseating creature she has become.

No matter that her dress perfectly matches her eyes.

She flutters up closer, her natural tiny size once more, and he feels the urge to swat her like a bluebottle fly.

“I’d like us to be friends, you know? Or at least on better terms. Like the old days.”

“A fairy with a wish,” he smirks, “How charming. And what would you hope to gain from this, hmm? Would you spy on me and report to your new mistress as you did the old?”

“There is no need for such spite, Rumpelstiltskin,” she looks so hurt, that were she still human he would feel a pit in his stomach and cracks in his heart. But he is unperturbed by the tears of a fairy, and so his smile stays in place.

“Oh, I think there is. I have no need of fairy friendship, any more than I have need of a wine skein made of cobwebs. Your offer is flimsy, dearie, and full of holes.”

“I miss you.”

“A fairy with feelings?” he chuckles, and only he can hear the hollow, bitter note concealed within, “How sweet.”

He hopes she’ll be crushed, or even better, furious. He needs her to hate him more than he needs to breathe: anything less offers a slim chance of hope. Anything less would involve further contact with this not-Belle, this girl who should be everything and instead has traded her mind, her heart and soul, to feel nothing at all.

He hates the Blue Fairy with everything that he is, but this new Belle disgusts him.

He should have kept her locked in that dungeon.

---

The third time Rumpelstiltskin returns leaves Belle floating, soft and wistful.


She’s not hurting, so at least that’s something. Fairies really don’t feel true love, apparently, and even seeing him face to face, hearing his words and knowing the stories he span and hid behind them, didn’t feel like the knife to the heart she knows it could have.

The horror in his eyes, though, the revolted, sickened sneer he’d held before he vanished, were still saddening.

She wanted to be his friend.

And especially now, now that she could see him and not want to kiss his mouth and hold his hands. Now that her heart didn’t race, and her face didn’t flush, and she didn’t want his hands to touch every part of her, to cup her heart in his palms.

Now they could be friends, and nothing more.

Allies, magic with magic.

But of course, that was an impossible and fanciful little dream.

She granted the mortal boy’s wish, and the mother recovered well. She liked being sent on jobs like this one, and the Blue Fairy saw that and obliged. The boy would become a knight, and Belle supposes that it is a surprising little bonus that he’d pledged his life to the fairies’ service in gratitude.

No one could have expected that, and she certainly hadn’t: she had been sent to be of help, nothing more.

Rumpelstiltskin, the Dark One, is the one who grants wishes and asks for payment. Fairies hold no agenda, no plan in their minds when they offer assistance. Belle likes that.

She arrives home, to the fairy clouds, and she’s not sad at all for herself.

But she feels a deep pity for him: he can’t even accept platonic love, one friend in the whole universe, and so he is alone while she has found a family.

She reports to the Blue Fairy, who smiles and cups her cheek, and doesn’t ask about Rumpelstiltskin, doesn’t ask any more than the details of the spell Belle performed and the reaction of the son and near-dead mother.

Then she nods her head, and dismisses Belle to go and rest.

Nova, the sweet little thing on the cloud next to Belle’s, is spinning and performing clumsy air-ballet moves when Belle catches her.

“Hi Belle!” she beams, does another little arabesque, “How did it go?”

“I met an old friend,” Belle flops onto her cloud, smooths her dress into a long nightgown with a whisper of magic from her fingertips.

“Oh? From your human life?” Nova has stopped dancing, settled down, head cocked to one side in attention. She is always anxious to hear stories from Belle’s life before: fairies who had been changelings always are.

“Yes,” Belle replies, staring at the pink and purple sunset sky, “From before. He’s... I don’t think he’s happy with what I am now.”

“He doesn’t like fairies?” she can hear the frown in Nova’s voice, “Why?”

“Rumpelstiltskin is... special.” Belle hears Nova’s sharp intake of breath at the name, but she doesn’t care: her friend would have found out eventually either way. And it doesn’t matter anyway: that life is behind her.

She doesn’t worry about empty hearts and chipped cups, not anymore.

And so, really, does it matter whether she was once brave or cowardly, a fighter or a frightened child? Does it matter that she scrubbed the Dark One’s floors, or loved so truly that she could barely breathe for it?

It doesn’t matter at all. Belle genuinely doesn’t care, and it’s a beautiful thing.

The fact of that makes every day a little lighter.

“You survived?” Nova gasps, although the question sounds stupid even to Belle’s ears.

“Obviously. He’s in a bad way, though: I wish Blue would let me help him.”

“You’re always wishing, Belle,” she can hear the smile in Nova’s voice, “Even for the Dark One, you wish. We’re fairies: we grant wishes, we don’t make them.”

“But what if we could?” Belle has allowed the warm, soft magic in her veins to smooth out her rough edges, to soothe the hurt that lingers from the day’s encounter and release the knots in her stomach. Her voice is far away and dreamy, soft and meaningless, “What would you wish for, if someone else would grant it?”

“Why would I wish?” Nova’s voice has a strange edge to it, and Belle rolls over to watch her friend. She is looking at her hands, tangling and untangling her fingers together, not meeting Belle’s eyes, “What is there to wish for?”

“I’m sure you could think of something.”

“No... I mean...” she looks up, “Anything? For anyone?”

Belle nods, smiles encouragingly, “Anything.”

“Well...” Nova allows a slow smile, “There’s this... guy I met the other day, when I was trying to get the fairy dust. He helped me... and I wanted to show him the fireflies, you know, as a thank you... but he didn’t want to come. He made some kind of excuse and left really fast.”

Belle looks hard at her for a while, eyes narrowed slightly, brushes back a little of the fuzzy magical cloud around her emotions, and tries to put her finger on what she recognises in Nova’s tone.

“How did that make you feel?” she asks, trying to keep from being too obvious in her scrutiny.

“Sad, I guess... yeah, sad. Huh, I don’t get sad often. But yes, it made me sad. I wish he wanted to see me again.”

Nova closes her eyes almost out of habit, as all children do when they wish for what they truly desire. And Belle does know that look: that look goes hand in hand with falling into strong arms from velvet curtains, with roses offered out of thin air and kisses beside spinning wheels.

“Then go find him,” Belle smiles, “You said it yourself that fairies grant wishes. So grant your own: go see him again.”

“Why? Just because I wish I could thank him...”

Belle clears a little more of the fog around her memories, tries to pinpoint the word she’s looking for, the one that means home and warmth and a little bit of hurt, but only because his smile is so sweet and genuine and... there: “You’re falling in love with him.” She smiles, proud of herself.

Belle had loved once.

And when those memories, that aching pain, comes swelling back up again, she quickly smothers them once again with that heavy fairy blanket.

She can choose to be human and hurting, or a fairy and happy as the daybreak.

But Nova doesn’t have to: maybe Nova won’t have to know love the way Belle did, like a sword in the chest.

Maybe Nova can love without pain, love the way a fairy would surely do it, happy and free and joyful; innocently and without deceit.

“What?” Nova giggles, but it’s a little high, a little nervous.

“One day, you will love him,” Belle pronounces, proudly, “And love is a wonderful thing, it’s all warm and hopeful. It’s... dreamy.”

And Nova gasps, hand pressed to her mouth, and makes a happy little cry, flying up to spin and kick her legs in the air. Belle watches, bemused, from below as her friend floats back to her cloud and relaxes back, still beaming, “Dreamy... that’s his name, Belle. Dreamy! Love and dreams and my wish will come true!”

Then she’s back up like a shot, unable to keep still, spinning and whirling and finally flying far enough away that Belle has to call “Where are you going?”

Nova wheels to face her, “To grant my wish!”

Her laughter echoes, warm and sweet and clean, through the clouds as she vanishes down to the Earth.

---

The fourth time Belle returns, Rumpelstiltskin is already most of his way to falling-down drunk.

She wears a ridiculous green cloak - ridiculous because it is meant to hide her unnatural fairy glow, cover that jellyfish dress and the aura of sparkly, sickly, cloying magic that surrounds her - and drinks some kind of fruit juice.

No ale for fair-folk, of course not. It is too earthy, too bitter and imperfect for their innocent little palates.

Belle had drank ale with him often, and wine in the evenings. Belle had not cared one bit about appearance and imperfection: she had opened her arms to the flaws of the world, and loved everything more for scratches and chips.

This isn’t Belle: this is a turquoise fairy with a piss-poor excuse for a glamour.

He sees through it instantly, and he’s halfway to entirely shitfaced.

“I’d suggest getting your sparkly fairy arse ou’ of here fairly damn fast, dearie,” he doesn’t slur, he just speaks slowly so she can understand him in the crowded tavern, “I’m no’ in th’ mood.”

“Oh, Rumpelstiltskin,” she chides, smiling as fairies always do, sweetly and kindly, “Just hush, I’m not here to pester you.”

“Good.” he nods, before wondering why else she would be sat on the bar stool next to him when she’s still a minion of the Blue Fairy. “Wha’ in seven hells are you doin’ here then?”

“Shh!” she quiets him, places an excited hand on his arm, and there’s even a trail of fucking glitter left behind where her palm touches him.

Belle hadn’t been sparkly: Belle had been a soft and smooth kind of shiny, like a bubble. Easily popped by careless claws, but so pretty while she was floating around, clean and full of new and interesting colours.

He drinks to forget those he’s lost.

But it’s always at this point, between sober and unconscious, that he finds himself making ridiculous metaphors and almost sobbing into his ale.

He’s a fucking moron. Useless and cowardly and-

He needs to go kill something. Now. Or better yet, he needs to go trick someone else into killing something. Random, useless, pointless cruelty always drags him back to the present, kicking and screaming if needs be.

“Get your sparkly hands off me, fairy.” he growls, but she just gives him a look that says ‘oh, please, it’s just some glitter, get over yourself’.

And oh, he misses her.

Not this her, old-her. The girl who owned, created, perfected that look long before this fairy stole her skin.

“Look!” she’s practically bouncing in her seat, and her glamour is beginning to slip: Belle had always had such wonderful concentration. Fairy-Belle is as brainless and easily distracted as the next flimsy, gauzy creature.

She gestures to a couple on the other side of the bar, another fairy - glamoured to look human enough to most, but not particularly well - and what he could swear is a dwarf.

Which is weird enough, considering how, from what little he knew from either species, neither is prone to dating.

But then, he’s an imp with an ancient demon in his brain, sat mourning the fate of the mortal girl who became the fairy now beaming at him, and the son her boss sent careening into another dimension. So maybe stranger things have happened.

He knocks back the rest of his Goblin whiskey with a grimace, and feels it rush right to his head.

When did he last eat?

The fairy across the bar - sparkling pink, skinny and pretty in a doe-eyed waif-ish way - is beaming at the dwarf with more real emotion than he’s ever seen on a fairy’s face. Ever.

“Who’re they?” he asks, and Belle sighs, a dreamy and rather silly little sound, girlish and thoughtless.

“My best friend and her true love,” she sounds like she’s about to melt into a little syrupy puddle, like she’s about to start vomiting rainbows.

He feels sick.

But that might just be the Goblin whiskey.

“Oh?” he frowns, “Dwarves don’ do love, do they? ‘N neither do fairies.”

“I guess that sometimes the stars line up, and it just... works.” She’s beaming, clutching his arm, “Isn’t it sweet?”

He wants to rip her wings off and shake her hard, make her Belle again and get rid of this bubbly, frothy, empty little creature before him. But he made her this, because he’s a worthless coward who ruins everything he touches, and so he just pushes himself from his bar stool and tries to stand.

And then the Goblin whiskey hits his bloodstream, and he’s seeing stars, and he hears her voice - always her voice, always the same - calling “Rumpelstiltskin?”

---

The fourth time Rumpelstiltskin returns, Belle technically goes to him.

Nova is all ready to go.

Belle even helped her to sort herself out, to pack and set things in place. They hadn’t told Blue, not yet, not until everything is in place.

Nova doesn’t look as happy today as she used to.

Not that she looks sad, oh, no, but the happiness isn’t as bright as it used to be. It seems tempered somehow, an ambivalent mix of hope and love and, yes, happiness, but also some fear, some trepidation, some sadness at leaving her friends behind.

Her sparkle is dimmer, her colours less vibrant.

Belle catches herself almost missing that, the feeling of mixed emotion and a sharper, realer world. But Nova was once a changeling, and never before truly human: Belle gave all that up on purpose, by choice.

Still, Belle is a little jealous, just a little bit.

But the fluffy, fairy blanket over her emotions just needs a little tug, and there it is, the blank and pure joy she has become so used to, so reliant upon.

Nova vanishes for the human world, and Belle flies to tell Blue.

She’s been nominated for this: Titania and Mirabelle both agreed it should be her. She’s Nova’s best friend, and for the past three months she’s been the one co-ordinating Nova and Dreamy’s meetings.

It has to be her.

And of course Blue will understand, of course she will. Blue loves and understands all her fairies, and only wants what is best for everyone. Nova is happy, Dreamy is over the moon, and Blue will understand.

“Excuse me?” Belle approaches Blue’s cloud and tries not to feel nervous.

“Yes, Belle?” Blue turns to face her, smile full of warmth and kindness.

“I need... I have to tell you something.”

“Yes?”

Belle looks into her rounded, pretty face, and cannot feel any fear. Because Blue is her friend, and Nova is happy, and so she spills the entire story, secrets and glamours and all. She tries to inject into her voice every ounce of pride and love and hope she feels for these two, who make each other so sweetly and perfectly happy, who will explore the world together and count every star in the sky.

Blue just watches, her expression strangely blank and unamused.

“So now they’re going to go away together, isn’t that wonderful?”

She is breathless with excitement, but Blue wears the closest thing to a glare Belle has ever seen on her sweet little face.

“Mother Blue?”

“Why did you allow this?” she asks.

“Because... they’re happy.”

“You of all creatures should understand how short-lived such things are!” Blue cries, “Dreamy will simply abandon her, as lovers always do, and Nova will be unable to return to us, broken and alone in the world. Why would you want that for her?”

And Belle doesn’t want to disagree.

She shouldn’t: Blue is always right, always.

But still... true love had made her happier than anything in the world. It had filled her dreams and made her fly, it had broken a powerful curse and brought smiles and blushes to the face of a monster.

The blanket starts to fray, and Belle’s emotions begin to bleed.

“But... it’s true love.” she pleads, because Blue needs to understand, and Belle so badly does not want to feel this way, “They’re happy.”

“Nova is to be a fairy godmother. That is her happy ending, not some dalliance with a dwarf who cannot even feel such things. No. This needs to end before they destroy their own lives and everything else in the process.”

Belle doesn’t understand, can’t understand.

But once upon a time, she could have. When she was human she had been clever, she had used every emotion as a compass, as a way to reason the truth. She had read and cried and danced around her bedroom.

And she knows that to be human again would welcome back all that pain.

And such a thing, without True Love's kiss, would be impossible anyway.

She covers her humanity again as fast as she can, and bows her head, and flies away. But she doesn’t go back to her cloud, no, she goes someplace far worse. Carried by the wind and by the love she has for her friend, the need for her happiness on Earth even where her own is long gone and lost, she flies to the Dark Castle.

Rumpelstiltskin is at his wheel.

She flies in through a window, and can smell the drink on him from halfway across the room.

“Rumpelstiltskin?”

He looks up, and she wears her glamour, appears as she used to be.

“No’ today, dearie, ‘m too tired for imaginary friends.” he murmurs, and takes a swig from that damned flask before returning to his work.

She strides up to him, in too much of a hurry for his drunken stupidity, and puts her hands on his shoulders the way she did so very long ago, when she was human and her hands didn’t leave traces of glitter on all they touched.

That seems to confirm for him that - while she looks human - she is herself, now, she is here and real and still a fairy.

“You’re free to leave,” he mutters, “Do so before somethin’ nasty happens.”

“Argh!” she stamps her foot in frustration and that, at least, appears to get his attention.

“A fairy w’ anger?” he frowns, “What a special little snowflake.”

“I need your help, Rumpelstiltskin, so stop being an idiot and sober up!”

“Ohhh,” he giggles, stands and only sways a little as he moves toward her, “Little Tinker-Belle needs my help?”

She can smell the whiskey on his breath, and feels that a candle held to his lips would resemble dragon-breath. But she just stares him down, uncovers her emotions just a little bit to remember how she used to deal with him.

This isn’t about her; this is about Nova, and so she can sacrifice a little mindless pleasure and joy for the sake of a friend.

“It’s not for me: it’s for Nova.”

“Nova...” He stops, pauses, frowns, “Pinky one... sparkles with a little man.”

“Yes.” she sighs: this was a mistake. “They’ve run away together.”

He glares at her, and she can sense him sobering just a little bit: it’s a little bit flattering, or at least comforting, that he’ll go to that effort for her. “And you need me to haul her back? Oh, no dearie.”

“Of course not!” she snaps, and since when to fairies snap? “I need you to help them to escape. They need to have a chance.”

She wonders about that old story, about the girl who opened a box just a little and allowed everything to escape.

If she spends time with him, and defies Blue, can she ever regain her fairy sparkle?

She hopes so: she can’t feel these things much longer. They hurt too much.

“And what can you offer me in return?” He’s grinning, leering, gleaming. She would hate him if she could. But she can’t feel hatred any more than she can feel true love, and so all she has is a mild irritation.

“The anger of the Blue Fairy? Helping thwart her?”

Rumpelstiltskin’s hatred of Blue is legendary, although Belle had never known it before she became a fairy herself. Still, she hopes it will be enough.

She had already traded everything she had to this creature, and lost it all the the process.

She has no more to give.

Another thought to be quashed mercilessly with her fairy blanket.

“Hmmmmmm” he spins around thinking, more dramatic than she’s ever seen him. What happened to him after she left? When did he become this?

“And this,” she holds out a bag of fairy dust, stolen from Blue’s own supplies, “I know you don’t like fairy magic, but this is valuable, and-”

“Deal!”

She beams, and he’s grinning, and for a moment it’s the old days again.

And then he snaps his fingers, and they’re with Nova and Dreamy on a rickety old ship, and there is work to do.

For the rest of the night, they are preoccupied with strong glamour spells and hiding charms, and enchantments for speed and good fortune. The Dark magic Rumpelstiltskin uses will thwart that of Blue, if she comes, and Belle has missed his trilling laugh, his strange and mottled golden face.

But it’s a soft and wistful kind of melancholy, because her wings prevent her from feeling more.

---

The fifth time Belle returns, it’s to say thank you.

He wasn’t expecting to ever see her again, but here she is, with a brighter shimmer and a once-more brainless smile. No glamour this time: he doesn’t know what kind of strange fairy cruelty prompted her to appear as her human self that night, but her jellyfish dress is almost a relief.

Almost.

He misses his imaginary-Belle. She doesn’t come anymore, not since he was forced to spend a whole night with the creature who wears her smile.

She might not be able to feel true love anymore, but he can, and it needed more than a pouch of fairy dust and an irate Blue Fairy to make that torture truly worthwhile. She reeks of saccharine charms and honey magic, and it stings the back of his throat.

She’s not there long, just long enough to kiss him lightly on the cheek, tiny little fairy lips, to thank him for his friendship and to warn him of the Blue Fairy’s anger.

He can only imagine what spell the Blue Fairy must have cast on her, once she realised that the first was wearing off and that Belle is so much stronger than she looks and able to break any curse she likes.

So he brushes her away, giggles something about friends and enemies, banishes her from his home and looks for a glimpse of personal hurt in her eyes as he does.

But there’s just that selfless pity, and that fluffy gauze thrown over anything else behind her eyes. She is a true fairy once more, and unable to feel anything more than pity for others, and obedience to her leader and her cause.

He hates her so much he could murder her.

But the night of the escape, she had been more Belle than any time since before she met the Queen on the road, and he will never not be in love with her.

Her current state is his own stupid fault.

Because of a deal broken three centuries past, and a promise made in anger to the fairy who took this love of his too, and a deep and abiding darkness he thinks he might never be able to rid himself of.

He owes her something for that, some small gesture of apology for all that has happened. He never meant for her to hurt this way, end up like this.

She was supposed to go home to her father, and be the knight’s daughter and lord’s wife she was bred to become.

So as she leaves, he covers her with one more spell, his first selfless act in lifetimes. He wraps her in a powerful counter-curse, to protect her from the one he himself is building. And perhaps the Blue Fairy will see and remove it. Perhaps it will do no good. But if she is to be doomed to the life he creates for her mistress, then the least he can do is save her the worst  of it. At least she will remember who she was.

At least she will still be Belle, and not some cruel and inverted version of herself.

---

The fifth time Rumpelstiltskin returns, Belle pretends not to recognise him.


She hasn’t seen him at all in the twenty-eight years since the Curse hit - the Curse she can sense that he designed, even without her old powers, and one day she’ll give him an earful for that - and she supposes it’s for the best.

After all, time is standing still, and she’s a nun, and twenty-eight years is a decent amount of time to relearn how to be human again.

He comes to collect the rent, and Belle watches him every week from the window of the convent, as he talks and swaps barbed comments with the Mother Superior, as he pretends he knows nothing more than he says. And she's longing for him, ridiculously so, with all the renewed vigour of her youth, with all that she is. She feels things she never could as a fairy, and shouldn't as a nun: a deep and unfulfilled need for touch and kiss and warmth. For Rumpelstiltskin, no matter what guise or glamour he wears these days.

But she can’t go to see him: whenever she tries, something stops her.

She figures that one day that will change.

She figures that he’s the reason she remembers anything at all. She doesn’t know whether to kill or kiss him for that, but one day she’ll find out.

One day, whatever escape clause he built into this Curse will come into play, and then he will have to speak to her. One way or another, for the first time since a sentence spoken by a spinning wheel, Belle and Rumpelstiltskin will talk as equals, human to human.

---

The sixth time Belle returns, she is dressed more conservatively than he’s ever seen her.

Mr Gold, of course, as technically never met Sister Isabelle.

But it’s her, of course it is, closeted away with all the others of her old kind in that convent, never to come out again.

And he doesn’t go and see her, he can’t. The curse will allow for no changes, even those he himself uses: every day is exactly the same as the last, and he cannot step out of the maddening little time-loop to find her, to just say hello.

Astrid and Leroy run the Storybrooke travel agent’s: they never seem to notice that they have no customers. Just the occasional visitor to browse the catalogues.

The Mother Superior hates the pair of them with a passion: Regina concocted a little story about a ruined Miners’ Day festival to cover that stray piece of history.

The sixth time Belle returns, Mr Gold doesn’t try hard enough.

She arrives at his back door the night the Saviour arrives. Gold saw the clock tick as he passed it on his way home, saw the Curse’s first tiny splinter crack emerge.

But he doesn’t know what to say when she is at his back door, and breathing hard like she’s been running, and staring at him with wide and familiar eyes.

She’s Belle again.

Of course she is.

He protected her from the worst of the Curse: she is who she always was. Better, because she is now all that she was meant to be. As if she never wore wings or spread sparkling glitter over everything she touched. As if she never blocked out everything but sunshine and rainbows from her mind.

The sixth time Belle returns, Gold has no idea what to say.

“Aren’t you going to invite me in?”

Three years of hating all that she became, and a further twenty-eight without so much as a glimpse of her face, and still he’s helpless in the face of her smile.

“How-” he tries to gather his thoughts, pick an emotion and run with it, “Why did you come here?” He’s tempted to play the innocent, to ask ‘who are you?’ and pretend not to recognise her painfully familiar eyes. But if she’s here, then she knows something. And Rumpelstiltskin has been running and hiding for so long: if she can be human again, so can he.

So he stands aside, and allows her in.

And it’s awkward, and painful, and honesty he’d rather the Mayor’s boy kicked him in his bad leg repeatedly and then had the Saviour stamp on it a few times than stand here with nothing to say.

“I needed to see you.”

“Why?” Do you remember? the question is on the tip of his tongue, but he dare not ask.

“Because it’s been twenty-eight years since I was called anything but Sister Isabelle, and I want to know why.” She sounds as if she’s aiming for accusatory, for anger and blame and hurt, but her voice just seems... soft, breathy, almost hopeful.

Words spoken by a spinning wheel, so very long ago, and still his heart his thrumming and singing in his chest, still his hands shake, and he is still trying too hard.

“I protected you, dearie,” he replies, the old endearment surprisingly familiar even after all these years as someone else, “Helped you remember.”

“Why me?” she asks, and he cannot answer.

They stand in silence a moment, and she stares at the ridiculously sweet little ballet flats on her feet, and he finally replies, “Why do you think?”

Because for once he could save her from being diminished by magic, and no price was too high for that. Because he loves her, and has done for three decades, and losing her to fairy magic and those brainless little sparkling smiles was too much to bear.

Because he’s a greedy, selfish old man, and she is his pretty songbird and no one else’s.

“I think... you needed someone else to know the truth. Someone who didn’t hate your guts and want the world to burn.”

She was always the Queen of hidden truths. She was always able to see the heart of things, even when the surface layers were what really mattered. She had seen his human soul when he was still a monster, and unable to believe it himself. And she had believed it enough to save him.

He should have told her everything, the first time she asked.

But somehow he has found himself a second chance with a woman who should shun him and hide her face from his sight. And so perhaps she is right, perhaps that was why he saved her above anyone else.

“No,” he shakes his head, “Not entirely.”

“Then why?”

“Because...” he takes a deep breath, leans on his cane, the kitchen too small for him to breathe with her so very close, “Because I love you, and I couldn’t let you forget.”

He’s still trying too hard, trying to be brave and honest and right for her, trying to break down thirty years of hurt.

But there are no recriminations, no fears in her eyes. Just the loveliest, sweetest, most humanly honest smile he’s ever seen, even with the tears on her face. Her hands are trembling even as they reach for his, and she leans up on tiptoes to kiss him again, exactly like before.

Except not, because this time his hands wrap around her waist, and he slips his tongue along the seam of her soft lips, and he is reeling into a new and frightening insanity, warm and whirling and perfectly real. Human.