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Love is not a victory march

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In the last night he'll ever spend with Milah, she suggests leaving the town together, leaving his reputation as a coward and her discontent behind to seek out the world. It's not the first time she speaks of her longing for adventure, and he has no reason to suspect it will be the last. Much later, he wonders what would have happened if he had agreed, given that she had already set her heart on the pirate. Had she even meant it? But if she hadn't, why say it? Certainly not to spare his feelings. Milah, that one, unforgivable lie aside, had always been brutally honest, and had no sooner thought that she wished he'd died a hero that the words were spoken out loud.

His love for her had started to die then, but there was enough of it left by the time the pirates came that he immediately says no to her plan. It isn't that he lacks curiosity about the world, or that he does not smart under everyone's contempt, which has grown stronger over the years, but: the misery they're in binds them together. As long as they are in this town, she may spend time in the tavern drinking and carousing, but at the end of the day, she's still known as his wife, and no one will ever see her as anything else. She has to come home to him and Bae. There is no choice. If they were to leave, if they were to seek their fortunes elsewhere, becoming vagabonds, strangers to everyone they were to meet, why, then there would be no reason for her to stay at all with him but love, and he no longer trusts she still feels any for him.

He speaks of the boy, says they can't leave if they can't be sure they'll be able to feed their child elsewhere, and here he has a business at least. This is their home.

"Your home," Milah says, lying in bed with him, and late in the night, he hears her whisper, and pretends not to: "My prison."

****
Many years later, when the worms have long since eaten all that is left of Milah, a young girl talks to him about longing to see the world. She's wearing a dress just like the one Milah wore before he left for the wars, when they could still speak of love for each other. It pleases him to see her in Milah's blue dress, just as it pleases him to hear her talk about her thirst to see the world, and yet hear no resentment in her voice for the fact he is the very thing that is keeping her from it. On the contrary, he see something in her eyes that suspiciously resembles affection.

He has just given her the man she was engaged to, changed into a rose, and as he watches her clip this flower's thorns, he thinks: this is what I should have done to the pirate. But he was younger then, and still learning how to use his powers.

****

When he lies at the feet of Killian Jones, his attempt to rescue his wife cut shamefully short, there is something in him, ugly and burning, that whispers:serves her right. Something that started to grow the first time she said that it would have been easier to lose him to an heroic death than to live with the scorn he reaped for his cowardice. Now, as far as he knows, she's been captured and at best faces a life time of servitude, at worst the prospect of being used as every man's plaything, and something in him says: why, dearie, yes, it's easier to think of you dead, isn't it? Better dead than this.

He's horrified by the thought, and deeply ashamed. He tries to forget he ever had it. When he comes home, and tells Baelfire that the boy's mother has died , he makes sure to describe her death as tragic and heroic, and afterwards to speak only of her virtues whenever Bae wants to talk of his lost mother. He paints her an angel and almost convinces himself that she died, and that there was never bitterness between them, only love. That one, ugly moment sinks deep into the increasing mass of things he doesn't want to recall or think about.
By the time he sees her again, he has lost their son, and gained powers beyond anything the poor weaver could have imagined. And yet, that first sight of her, dressed in a pirate's gear, alive, and evidently never Killian Jones' victim but his confederate, that sight has the power to reduce him to who he used to be. What he used to be. He might as well still lie on the deck of that ship, quivering in shame.

He has a whole night to think of what he'll do to her. She deserves it, doesn't she? How could you,he screams at her in the morning, how could you do this to Bae, how could you leave him? Leave him. Let him go, let him fall. Leave him alone, and cling to your selfish, selfish wishes, that's what he thinks, that's what he tries to scream at her even if all the words don't come out in the surge of his hatred. She's the one. She's the guilty one. She left their son. Not him. Never him.
He rips her heart out and crushes it, and if he could do it twice over, he would.

****

He spends the night of Cora's wedding imagining all kinds of things he could do to her and that spineless weakling she's marrying. What if she's torn her own heart out? She has other limbs to remove. If he assumed she cared just the slightest bit for her prince, then he could start by hacking him in pieces in front of her, but unfortunately, she doesn't. Well, at the very least he could make the castle crumble around her, that shining castle she's sold herself for.

In the end, he does nothing. Absolutely nothing. If the years has brought him nothing else, they have brought him greater patience. He'll find a way to avenge himself on Cora, less immediate and dramatic, more efficient and complete. And subtle. He's learned to appreciate subtlety.

Meanwhile, there is still the night of her wedding to go through. And every night and day after this. And the prospect of some future revenge, of his great, intricate plan taking ever surer shape, doesn't help a bit in the here and now, because the awful, infinitely humiliating truth is that he misses her. He hadn't expect her, hadn't expected her to be anyone but yet another dupe who'd serve her purpose, another pawn to fall. But there she'd been, seeing him, all of him, being utterly unafraid, demanding knowledge, power and vengeance of her own. Burning so brightly, so very, very brightly. Wit for wit, mind for mind, and even as the enormity of her betrayal dawned on him, he'd seen what she'd done: bested him with his own weapons. He hates her for it, and loves her, and hates her, and torments himself imagining her with the prince, who'll never truly know her.

Magic, power, mind games, killing, all these in different degrees have provided him with joy or satisfaction over the years, but he'd forgotten what it meant to hold someone else in his arms. She has reminded him, she has woken up that part of him which was a man like any other, hungered like any other. He is the Dark One. He should be above this. And isn't hate supposed to kill desire? He certainly hasn't wanted anything more from Milah other than her death once he'd found out the truth about her and Hook.

He thinks of Cora in her wedding dress and Cora kissing him with hunger of her own to match his, and every minute of the night passes slower.

After forty days and nights of this, he's had enough. He has even found a way to justify what he's about to do to himself. It is all a part of the plan, of course, and of his revenge. If she thinks she has outwitted him, she is mistaken. He will outwit her. He will have a child from her, and she won't realise how he has tricked her until it is too late. Of course this is not about love, for she cannot love, and neither can he; he's been mistaken in the assumption that he has ever felt it. This is simply about the fact that nobody breaks deals with him. Nobody.

So he assumes the shape of that bland husband of hers. He could have killed the man first, but why bother? Leaving Henry alive will only demonstrate to her how utterly indifferent he has become towards her. After. Instead of killing the prince, he drugs him and puts a spell on the chamber he hides the man's body in to make sure nobody will find him there until Rumplestilskin himself returns for him. There will be no more blunders. Everything has been perfectly planned.

He goes to her as her husband. They have a dinner together, and she suspects nothing, not even when he makes a toast to the future. It gives him some satisfaction to know she doesn't show the prince anything like her true self, that she talks to him with some amused condescension and evidently expects the fool not to notice. Which the boy presumably does not. But then, when he starts to kiss her shoulders, she surprises him by taking the initiative instead of just enduring the man's attentions, as some part of him hoped she might. Not Cora, though. It burns him up, this mixture of fury and intoxication that fills him when she starts to undress him as eagerly as he undresses her. She shouldn't want this body, she should not, and yet this is everything he has dreamed of and missed for forty days and nights where every second was a torture.

There may have been some plan to be quickly done and then reveal himself, laughing at her. He still hasn't gotten to that part by the time the morning dawns and they lie utterly exhausted in each other's arms.

Then he hears her whisper: "I'm already pregnant."

Like the young, foolish man he has pretended to be, he stammers: "What?"

"Yesterday," she says, and there is bewilderingly sadness instead of joy in her voice, "I missed my courses for the second time. Or else this would never have happened. I told you that no child of mine will ever be a child of yours, Rumpel."

The shapechanging magic falls from him with the speed that coldness enters his heart.

"You knew."

"If I were deaf, dumb and blind," Cora says, "I would still know you."

He vanishes then. Because he doesn't want to give her more opportunity to gloat, he tells himself; or maybe because he is afraid of what else he might hear, or say.

 

****

When Regina asks him whether she looks like Cora in her youth, he shakes his head and says he can't see it, which is true. Belle, on the other hand, when she first arrives at his castle, bears more than a little resemblance, with her hair open especially, and when she wears a coat. It's one of the reasons why he jokes about showing her to her room and puts her in a cell, truth be told; Cora at this point has been in Wonderland for years, but he wouldn't put it beyond her to have found a way back, and suddenly, for just a few moments, he is certain she intends to do what he has done, avenge herself by taking another shape and go through the mockery of courtship with him.

The bewildered expression in the girl's face is unlike anything he's seen in Cora's eyes, and the resemblance quickly fades into insignificane, but he needs to be sure. Most of the time afterwards, he is. Their personalities are too different for Cora to keep this up for such a long time. Yes, he's sure.

Most of the time.

He finally is certain for good when she kisses him, and then he has another reason to lock her up and send her away.

 

****

Regina, before she is anything else, is the walking, talking symbol of Cora's betrayal. She should be his daughter, but she is not, and he never forgets that for a moment. In a way, it makes everything easier. It makes her ideal for his purposes. When she shows talent for magic, he knows he can use it, and that he will, because that, after all, is all he wanted from her mother from the beginning, an instrument for magic, and nothing more. Nothing more. When she leaves herself wide open for manipulation, it is her fault, because that is her father's inheritance, this gullibility, this weakness, this need for approval. If she were his daughter, she wouldn't possess such traits, and then he couldn't exploit them. And so it is her fault. Hers and her mothers.

He teaches her to kill and to deceive, and when she starts to find a taste for both, there are no regrets in him, because, after all, she is not his daughter. That she would turn against him sooner or later was what he expected. He's prepared for it, and confident she will never best him. Her mother might have done, but Regina? Regina is Henry's daughter.

The only time she actually manages to hurt him is when she uses Belle. This shows more insight and creativity he'd have credited her with having. No matter. It only proves, if proof were even necessary, that he well and truly has created the monster he needs, and does not need to care what becomes of her once she has served her purpose.

("Why does the Queen hate you so much?" Belle asks, years later and in another world, and well she might, given she has paid with twenty eight years in prison for this hate. "My dear, it is all about power," he replies, because the man Belle sees in him could not possibly have done what he has done to create Regina, and certainly does not have his reasons. She will find out soon enough. He treasures the time until she does.)

If there is something irritating in Regina's progression to where he needs her to get, something that sticks in his throat despite the fact it actually will come in useful later, it is this: she might kill with the ease she swats flies now, she might take her pleasure regardless of whether a man actually wants her, as the Huntsman Graham can testify, she might not hesitate to use children against her own rivals, but she still keeps her father around. That useless man, who never did anything remarkable in his life, who could never do more than stand by while others acted, who sympathized with Cora the Miller's daughter but did not stand up for her to his father, who did not stand up to his wife Cora for Regina his daughter, who did not do a single thing to keep Regina the Queen from hurting anyone she wished to hurt . But Regina still loves him, still wants him near her. The one time she braves Wonderland and her mother's presence, it is to rescue her father. That man has failed her in every conceivable way, and she is now a monster nearly ready to doom a world, but this man, she still loves and forgives. This father of hers.

Rumpelstilskin actually has a conversation with Henry, and only one. Regina has been defeated and captured, her trial is impending, her father, wouldn't you know it, does his usual thing of crying and standing by when visiting her in prison. And then he finally does something surprising. Once he has left the castle, where the Blue Fairy has ensured no dark magic can take place in order to keep Regina prisoner, Henry calls Rumpelstilskin's name, three times. Well. Why not? It might even be amusing.

"At your service," Rumpelstilskin says. Henry has grown old since the last time they stood this close, when Henry had been a young prince newly wed. That shape of his now would not be suitable to induce any woman's desire, wrinkly, decayed, full of the stench of mortality.

"You must save my daughter," Henry says, tears in his eyes.

"Must I? I think everyone else in this world would disagree."

"You corrupted her," says the man who never did anything to stop it, "just as you changed her mother from the innocent girl she used to be. You owe her."

Oh, but this is too much.

"Nobody could change Cora," Rumpelstilskin says, and the scorn and anger in him feel like old lava that has waited a lifetime to burst out. "But then, you never really knew her, did you? You just did as you were told and married a fountain of gold. Tell me, how did that work out for you, dearie?"

The old man who once was a young prince, fifth in line for a throne he never reached, looks at Rumpelstilskin, and the grief in his eyes is horrifyingly familiar.

"Think what you like," Henry says. "Only, please, save my daughter."

When he kneels down, head bowed as if ready to kiss Rumpelstilskin's boot, it is here, the last of the awful truths he never wanted to face. But for his station of birth, this man could be the weaver, the woolshop owner, who lived near three centuries ago, stood by as his wife chose another man, another life, and was unable to do anything to stop his son from being dragged to his death but crawl in the dirt.

Hook, he has hated for being so unlike this man that Milah loved him. Henry, he hates for being exactly like him. Now more than ever.

"Everything comes with a price," Rumpelstilskin says, even though he has no intention of letting Regina die. Not yet. She still hasn't cast his curse, after all.

"If my daughter lives," her father replies, her father who had no right to be her father, no right at all, "then I will gladly pay it."

That settles it. "You know, I really, really doubt that, but it's a deal."

***

"Don't you worry about your son. Love is the strongest magic of all, isn't it, Mr. Gold?" Henry says, turning towards him in his seat. Mind you, the boy is trying to be kind, and also possibly attempting to distract Rumplestilskin from the unexpected horror provided by air planes. Henry, there's a laugh. Regina names a child he has procured for her after the father she killed, just so she has a reminder every time she calls his name.

"I want you to find the one person in the world who might still love you," Cora has said after offering a truce and giving him the location of his son, adding that this what she wants for herself as well, which is why she needs her daughter back.

The future is a bewildering mass of possibilities, which he has found out too late. Not all of them turn true, and some in ways that are the exact opposite of what he once imagined. That vision of Cora holding his dagger in her hand, about to kill him, feels increasingly likely, though. He doesn't trust her truce for a moment. But they've always tricked each other with the truth, she and he, and that means he really will find his son. This is what it has been for, isn't it? Which means it was all worth it. Finding his son. All worth it. Even Hook. Even Hook taking Belle's memories and thus Belle.

Cora will find Regina as well, no doubt about that. And Regina, being Regina, will forgive her. Maybe she'll also try to kill her mother at some later point, but first, she'll offer her mother love again.

He's not sure Bae will do the same. After all, Bae is his son.

***

"I love you," Cora says at some point during the long night they spent together, the night he stole, and he is sure she lies. She must. After all, she believes she is talking to her husband, is she not? Besides, she doesn't have her heart. If she ever did. "And I would not change anything I've done."

"I know you wouldn't," he says, or rather, he makes the fool Henry say, that weak, weak man, that coward. "And that is why I love you."

She must know, mustn't she, that he lies. After all, the man who speaks is not able to hold on to who he claims to love, never has been and never will be. But he says it, nonetheless.
It is the last night they spend together. The future comes to him in fragments, but this he believes with all his heart: there will never be another.