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A Stolen Heart

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Belle felt pretty good after her deal with the Blue Fairy, and had worked through about all the summons she'd selected to return in about three days of time. Her last stop was responding to a princess who's brothers had turned into ravens. Or swans.

Some kind of fowl, at any rate.

Then, she heard someone whisper her name three times, and at first was not inclined not to pay it any mind...except she knew that voice.

And why Rumpelstiltskin was calling her, Belle had no idea.

For a moment or two, she thought it might've been a mistake. Why would he call her? He was back at home in the castle. Unless he'd taken her subtle hint and found himself in a pickle while trying to escape...then Belle felt something cold in her chest, as if something were terribly wrong. She teleported back to the castle and found herself in the Great Room. So was Rumpelstiltskin.

With her tea set on the table and a spilled teacup. Hmm. He stammered something about talking to himself while scurrying away for a rag to clean the tea with before it could spill down to the floor, apologizing profusely.

Hmm. Well. That was anticlimantic.

Belle took pity on her nervous little caretaker and cleaned up the mess with a snap of her fingers, reseting the teacup and making the chipped cup that Rumpelstiltskin favored appear on a saucer as well. She'd been gone for some time now. They ought to catch up...she would never admit it, but she had grown rather fond of her caretaker. He was too shy to be a stunning conversationalist, but he was interesting.

There was nothing Belle loved more than interesting things.

Rumpelstiltskin wasn't tired...but he felt...foggy.

He had been settling in as comfortably as he assumed one could get in the Dark Castle. He had his own rooms, he wasn't clothed in rags, he had enough to eat. And a mistress that encouraged him to eat. Actually if you didn't account for how he got this position in the first place, Rumpelstiltskin would say this was a very good job. He was in far better health here than he'd been in years back home in the Frontlands, at the very least, and was capable of getting a full night's sleep most of the time.

So, for the life of him, he could not explain why he felt so out of it.

At first it was such little things that he'd ignored it easily. The day was long, a few more chores had to be added to the list as the weather warmed up, if he forgot some of the things he'd done that day it wasn't something to be concerned about. And it wasn't unusual at all to walk into a room and forget what you were doing there. At least nothing unusual enough that he felt something wasn't right. These things went on for maybe a week after Belle's bender, long enough that he was starting to accept old age was upon him.

He was nearly fifty, that was a good bit older than most of his neighbors...due in part to most men his age having been slaughtered in the Ogre Wars years before, but, still. His eyes weren't as sharp as they were, and he certainly got stiff hunching over his wheel. He was just aging, getting forgetful like this, (never mind Charlotte and Arachne, the stubborn old goats, hadn't slowed down until their mid-seventies...) and it nothing to get worried over, right?

At least, not until he found himself working in one room, and then suddenly standing in another completely.

That he couldn't come up with a logical explanation for, and he'd certainly tried hard enough. It had happened when Belle went off to go speak with Queen Regina. At breakfast that morning, Belle told him not to bother with her midday meal as she'd be out all day, rolling her lightless blue eyes as she explained why.

"Regina's after me for a curse. She's always been a stubborn thing, but she's also ridiculously good at wasting my time too. I could put the secret of life in the palm of her hand, and she'd drop it to grab at something that promised to be faster."

"What kind of curse?" Rumpelstiltskin asked without thinking. Usually he wanted to stay as far away from Belle's dark magics as he could, why had he asked that?

Belle hummed, sipping her hot tea carefully. "The darkest kind of curse. As I said, Regina doesn't have patience. She's waiting on me to write it for her."

"Why don't you just cast it yourself?" Why was he asking more questions? His chest felt like a bubble was expanding, swelling against his ribs as if his insides were hollow. He head felt fuzzy and he carefully set down his teacup, wondering if he was going to pass out at the table.

"Well..." Belle tapped her nose. "I have to keep some secrets." Her smile faltered as she stared at him, turning into a concerend frown. "Rumple, are you alright? You look sick."

"Ah," the odd feeling passed, and Rumpelstiltskin shook his head to clear the cobwebs. "Yes. Yes I'm fine, m'lady, sorry. Just a little tired, I suppose. Ah, is there anything you need done while you're out? I was going to sort your library and then try to beat the dust out of the drapes."

"Have fun with that, then. I'm off." Belle shrugged, rising from her seat and brushing toast crumbs from her patchwork dress. It was a very lovely one, deep green velvet, cut wide to bare her round shoulders and collar bones.

There were cutouts at her side and a slit cut into her skirts, covered with sheer lace that both covered and revealed her glossy white skin. He could see her lacy petticoats, and shyly glanced away to try getting a better look at the stitches holding the lace to the velvet. Was that golden thread? His mistress always had such fascinating dresses, so many different materials and colors. He'd thought of complimenting her style before, but never found the nerve. Once he'd even daydreamed of brushing a hand over the fabric wrapped around her curvy little body, but that was wholly inappropriate for a caretaker to think about.

Belle gave him a saucy little smile like she could read his embarrassing thoughts and tripped out of the room, vanishing in golden smoke just as she reached the doors. She was quite dramatic, too, he thought, before blacking out.

He came to his sense in the library, standing over Belle's desk with papers scattered out of order around him and a book in his hands. The red one bound in dragonhide that always gave him the creeps. Rumpelsiltskin dropped the tome on the desk with a start, stumbling back from the desk so fast his feet slipped from under him, and he crashed to the floor. His staff clattered beside him, and a shot of pain raced up his hip that didn't bother him as much as it should have.

What just happened?

He tried to put the papers back in order, though he didn't understand most of them. They were written in different languages, sometimes just squiggly runes, and he hoped Belle wouldn't get angry at him for doing...whatever he'd been doing to them. His only hope hinged on how Belle was such a messy book owner with volumes scattered all over the library on every flat service, so that maybe she was a messy record keeper as well. Maybe.

He fled the library, abandoning his plans to do anything in there today and went back to the great hall where he found he hadn't even cleared the breakfast dishes. He carried them on his tray down to the kitchen, washed and dried them, and then he blacked out again. When he came to, he was in the library again. Over the desk.

Something was very, very wrong and it scared him to death.

Belle's meeting with Regina was surprisingly short. For once, Regina seemed to have her priorities straight. Or at least the priorities she wanted done straight, namely, the bloodiest vengeance she could wreak on Snow White. Belle could understand harboring bitterness towards a mouthy ten-year-old that spilled the beans to Cora, but waiting until Princess Snow came of age to do anything about it was ridiculous. If Regina really wanted to hurt Snow? She should've just arranged a marriage to some stupid man like Cora had done to her.

If she'd done that while Snow was still a pampered princess, she wouldn't have even had the backbone to fight back. Regina simply had no head for the long game. Hmph!

So, Belle came home early from her meeting, expecting Rumpelstiltskin to be in the library. He wasn't there, the drapes still shut as though he'd never gotten around to his project.

That didn't alarm Belle. She wasn't sure how she'd feel about the Dark Castle with lit windows, anyway. In fact she was almost totally willing to let it go, if not for the fact that she saw books stacked on the end tables, and other surfaces she'd littered in the library. That was unusual. Every three or four days, Rumpelstiltskin tidied up her mess in here by reshelving the books and giving things a good dusting. That combined with the drapes made unease prickle at Belle's spine, and she teleported herself down to the kitchens. Rumple wasn't there, either. She looked in the Great Room, and before panicking she took a look outside where the laundry was.

Er, no, not panicking. The Dark One did not panic over something as trivial as a caretaker. No. And especially not when she found him, after all. No reason to panic. None.

Rumpestiltskin was washing his own shirts, two pairs of trousers were hanging up on the line already, dripping. Perhaps his laundry had taken longer than expected, but Belle still felt off. He usually told her a bit about what he planned to do today, and then did that. She couldn't help but find the neglect of one of his favorite duties just a bit odd.

"Laundry day?" she asked.

Rumpelstiltskin almost fell into the washtub. He caught the edge, dropping his shirt in the suds, and looked up at her with wide brown eyes like a spooked deer that had Belle giggling as she approached. Carefully. No sense in frightening the poor man more.

"Ah, y-yes m'lady, I-I'm sorry, is it that late already?" he stammered, stepping back from the tub and drying his hands on the leg of his trousers. He'd peeled off his vest for the wet job of washing, wisely, as his front was splashed with water. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, and he must've brushed his hair out of his eyes once, the fringe hanging in his face was damp as well. His splashed shirt was translucent against his skin, but Belle tried to ignore that. She was a lady.

"Did you not get around to the library today?"

"What?" Rumpelstiltskin blinked. "Oh, uh...right. I suppose I got distracted, um, I'll be there in a moment, m'lady. As soon as I'm done with, uh, this."

He gestured down to himself, tugging at his shirt. The damp places peeled away from his smooth skin, interrupting Belle's peeking. At least she knew he didn't look like a bearskin rug under there. Not that it mattered one bit. Nope.

Belle gave her hand a wave and teleported back up to her library. She decided to take a seat and wait for her spinner to come up. On a whim, she got out the tea set and the silly chipped cup he liked using best. Perhaps it was some peasant trait, not wanting to waste anything useful. Or maybe he was too scared to use her good dishes and things. It did make one wonder what sort of plates and utensils he'd use though.

While she was waiting, Belle sauntered over to her desk with the intent to grab a book. She picked up the red volume bound in dragonhide, tucking it under her arm for the walk back to her couch when something made her pause.

The parchments and scrolls on her desk were out of order. She wasn't a very neat recordkeeper, but she had her system and this was not it. The papers were arranged in one neatish stack and the scrolls left bound up and pushed aside. Belle took more care with the scrolls, it was her papers that were the messy things. Someone had been rifling through her desk, but who? Had the Blue Fairy sent another thief, or was it the same one? Or had the Blue Fairy herself found a way past her wards? Could Regina have sent someone in or-


Belle looked up. Rumpelstiltskin was standing on the other side of the desk, watching her with some confusion. couldn't be.

Belle pasted on a smile and stepped lightly to her couch, sitting like a proper lady and pouring two cups of tea, making some breezy remark that invited her caretaker closer. He obediently took tea with her, listening to her chat about everything and nothing like always, and when he was finished he went to reshelve her books. It should have been normal. But it wasn't. Not with the niggling distrust gnawing at the edges of Belle's mind. simply couldn't. It just couldn't be that her shy, sweet, skittish little caretaker was up to something.

It couldn't be.

Could it?

Chapter Text

Regina was immediately surprised by how much freedom Belle let her mousy little caretaker have inside her fortress. Even as a bright-eyed student, Regina hadn't had this much freedom. But this sad-sack was given room and board for menial housekeeping tasks.

With that information, Regina assumed the man, with a horribly awkward name she couldn't remember now, (Belle constantly called him 'Rumple' but she couldn't tell if it was a nickname or an observation,) had been earning his keep in some other way. He was a bit old to be a kept man, in her opinion, but Belle did treat him a lot like a favorite pet. Only it was so chaste that Regina rolled her eyes whenever the man's heart fluttered with affection in her palm.

How desperate could a man be for attention that he was convinced the Dark One was in his league? Poor bastard. He made an excellent spy under these conditions though, and Regina made thorough use of him. She'd almost killed him for that little quip he made about her mother, (how the hell did they know each other?) but she'd restrained herself and thought better of it. Thank the gods she did.

Belle had always had Regina barred from her library, so, she explored the library with her spy first. Before leaving with his heart, she'd given the caretaker a small mirror that fit in the palm of your hand, so she could see what he saw. She ordered him to go to the library, (which was far, far, far larger than Regina ever thought it would be,) and spotted a large writing desk covered with scrolls and scholarly accessories that looked suspicious. So, naturally, she ordered him to go through the desk and kept an eye out for a scroll with the Dark Curse written down on it.

For ages now, Belle had been teasing and taunting her with the curse to end all curses. Regina had surely proven how she was willing to go as far as it took to make Snow White suffer. She'd kill that simpering little princess with her own hands if she had to, but Belle still demurred, and Regina was rapidly losing patience. She wanted that damned curse, and she didn't have time to wait on Belle to give it to her anymore.

Regina would just suck it up and write it herself. She hated weaving original spells because she was too impatient, (Belle always told her that was her fault as a sorceress,) but for vengeance? Oh. For vengeance Regina could be very patient. Very. The only thing was that Belle had all the original notes, and it would take Regina years to just start, so...

She'd just cheat a little.

Now, she couldn't babysit the caretaker through his captive heart all the time. Belle would get suspicious. It was fortunate that they seemed to have a schedule worked out, taking breakfast in the mornings, so that Regina could eavesdrop on Belle's plans for the day. If she was going out, Regina would snoop through her spy. If she stayed in, unless she was doing something interesting, Regina left her former teacher alone in favor of going about her own day, erasing her spying and memories of the hand mirror from the caretaker's mind. Every night she ordered him to slip it in the pocket of the trousers he planned to wear the next day and forget it, so he was completely unaware of it.

Suspicion was an ugly thing.

Belle lasted a mere day before she let it get the best of her, and announced at breakfast she'd be gone for two days, on a trip to Camelot. Rumpelstiltskin was his usual, dutiful self in asking if she wanted anything done while she was gone, what time she was expected back in case he needed to prepare tea or a meal, and part of Belle thought a man as sweet and attentive as this couldn't possibly be a spy.

The rest of her was fuming at his mock display of caring.

She gave it two hours, waiting in her workroom, firstly. She'd flipped her hourglass at the halfway point, watching the sands trickle away. In the first hour, she'd been listening intently for his odd gait on the stairs, a rattle of the door, a creak of the hinges, anything that suggested he was sneaking in here to steal all her secrets. In the second, she'd run down a list of potential enemies the spinner could've been planted by as a spy.

The Blue Fairy? Regina? Cora was dead at least. Maleficent maybe? She and that girl-group of B-team villainesses was probably smarting from Belle running them off like commonplace trespassers, and it was possible they'd lurked outside her property trying to meet up with Rumpelstiltskin, wasn't it?

She didn't want to kill him though...

The Dark One was writhing inside her, trying to convince her it was the only option, but Belle resisted. She had eaten too many meals at the table with Rumpelstiltskin, exchanged one too many secrets, witnessed too many soft-eyed smiles. She was seized with the urge to kiss him after he took his first sip of tea this very morning, to see if black tea was sweeter from his lips or not. It was disgustingly soppy of her, unbefitting the most powerful sorceress in all the realms, but inescapable at the same time.

Maybe his seemingly natural softness was all a ploy to make her lower her guard, though. It was a possibility.

Belle had been betrayed by her father when she trusted him not to act as if she were a monster. And he hadn't exactly treated her like a monster, true, but it was worse than that. He took away her free will. He forced her to marry Gaston, to let her new husband bed her as he pleased, and Belle took pains to never, ever, ever let anyone lay a hand on her dagger again. The only people to see it in centuries had been the star-crossed Lancelot and Queen Guinevere.

Belle took a moment to wonder how they were making out when she noticed the sands of her hourglass had run out.

She teleported down to the library, smokeless, and felt her heart drop at what she saw. Rumpelstiltskin was there, leaning over her desk. He had a mirror in his hand, a tiny pocket-sized thing. So it was Regina.

Belle saw red.

A wall of light slammed him across the room into the nearest bookshelf. The books rattled, but Belle couldn't give a damn about her books at the moment. She was that enraged. She trusted him. She trusted him! She trusted this caretaker more than she had trusted anyone in three hundred years in this damnable realm, and he'd betrayed her to Regina!

She was in front of him, next thing she knew, and he was wide-eyed with terror, gasping for air against the invisble chokehold around his throat. Belle felt the darkness surging in her blood, willing her head with horrid ideas: Peel the flesh from his bones. Cut out his tongue and eyes and make him eat them. Tie him to a post outside and let nature have its wicked way with his skinny body. Lock him in the dungeons until he begged for the release of death--

Belle snarled, shoving those thoughts aside. No. No. She would deal with him in her own time.

"You little traitor!" she hissed, pressing a hand on his chest and digging in her nails. His choked whimpers were pathetic, but the smallest part of Belle's broken heart still ached to stop the madness. Heart. Now that was an idea. "You'll pay for this."

She sunk her hand into his chest, ignoring his pained cry. She'd rip out his heart, banish him to the dungeon, and deal with him later. When she didn't feel like turning his insides on the outside. Only...only there was nothing to grab.

The heart...

The mirror shattered on the floor...

Belle leapt back, watching in horror as Rumple crumpled to the floor, a puppet with his strings cut. She remembered the day she had that bad feeling, was it a week ago now? Something had been wrong, and while she may never know the exact time-table of events...that didn't stop her from doing something about it.

Regina lost her visual, but felt fear coursing through the heart in her hand. It could only mean Belle had caught her spy. The Magic Mirror was unable to see anything, the action must've been taking place away from the shards on the ground, but Regina heard the sounds of choking and Belle's voice rich with rage. It was time to cut her losses-


In mid-squeeze, Regina found herself frozen. Magic squeezed her body like a vice, locking her muscles in place. The shadows of her tower seemed darker as Belle stepped into her line of sight, well away from the Mirror's reach. Never before in her life had Regina been more terrified of her former teacher: Belle's lifeless eyes burned into hers, her mouth pinched tight and the look on her face was the purest form of rage.

Belle snatched Regina's heart from her chest, barking out an order. "Give me his heart. Now."

Regina had no choice but to obey. Belle had taught her once, long ago, that there were two ways of controlling someone by their heart. One was with their knowledge, so that they remembered everything that happened in their own dulled way, or, completely against their will so that they blacked out. Regina often preferred the former, it made for better spying. Belle liked it so that her victims were completely did add to the terror. In that moment, Regina knew she was going to die.

"I won't kill you."

Wait, what?

"I'm not going to kill you." Belle repeated, her voice shaking with hatred. "But I will not let you get away with turning my own servant against me, Regina. You forget who the master is here, but I'll remind you who it is since you're too stupid to remember that. You're magic? I taught you. This little parlor trick of turning humans into meat puppets? My doing. You're very fucking existence on this earth is caused by my doing, so if you ever even consider trying to pull one over on me in the future, I will make you wish I'd killed you at this moment, do you understand?"

Belle vanished her caretaker's heart, then crooked a finger at Regina. The magic squeezing her body faded. "Now. Let's go to that little cellar you keep hearts in. I'm going to drive the lesson home for you since you just can't help taking things that don't belong to you..."

It was only then that Regina blacked out, unable to remember what happened next. She just knew she was standing in her vault, with a number of empty boxes around her. There were still plenty of hearts left, but she vaguely recognized the missing hearts, (there were so many...) they had all belonged to prisoners or staff. Her eyes settled on one she always kept aside. Belle had returned hearts to many of her captives...including the Huntsman.

It may take awhile, but Regina would get even for this.

Rumpelstiltskin found himself carefully arranged on the Dark One's couch when he woke up. The knit blanket he'd made for Belle was drawn up over him, soft pillows propped up his head.

He must've fallen asleep...


He looked up to find Belle leaning over him. The end of her braid swung down, almost tickling his nose. Her face was oddly remorseful, but he couldn't say why. Maybe he was sick after all.

"M'lady...uh," he shifted, trying to sit up, but she place a hand on his shoulder. "Wh-what happened?"

Belle sat on the edge of the couch cushion, her hip against his waist. She reached over and gently placed a hand on his chest, holding something red and glowing in her other hand. "We had a bit of trouble with the Evil Queen, I'm sorry to say. This is yours."

Rumpelstiltskin blinked. "My...what?"

"Your heart." She smiled a little sheepishly. "Well the...the manifestation of your heart, not the blood-pumping organ. Really it's sort of like your soul but more personal-Well here, let me put it back and we'll have a talk, yeah?"

He wasn't sure he could participate in such a conversation, but nodded.

Belle gently pushed the glowing thing into the center of his chest, and it melted through the skin and bones. He felt an odd intrusion in the cavity of his chest, a press forcing the air from his lungs in a rough gasp. Then he felt a thump. A mix of fear, relief, confusion, and gratefulness washed over him all at once, making him dizzy. Belle's hand stayed on his chest, petting the place he hadn't realized was empty, as if smoothing over any wounds remaining.


"Yeah, it's a bit strange. Um..." Belle's smiled, absently brushing his hair out of his face. "Regina stole it from you. I'm not sure when. She was using you as a spy, making you go through my desk and lord knows what else. I'm...sorry about that."

Rumpelstiltskin was quiet content to lay here while she pet him like this. Her fingers were cool against his skin, smooth. But she moved back, standing up and turning her back towards him, so he followed suit and rose from the couch as she started shaking her head.

"I should've known that sooner or later, some enemy would try to use you like a pawn. It doesn't much matter anyway. It won't happen again."

He expected some sort of spell or amulet next, honestly. Belle had a solution to almost every problem like that. That was why so many souls came to her for help. Some of them were quite foolish for it, but he could understand the ones with the sick and dying relatives or missing children, at least. Instead of a magical solution, though, Belle merely studied his face very closely. Rumpelstiltskin wasn't sure he'd ever had someone look at him so closely, it was almost as if she were commiting it to memory.

"Our deal is complete."

He...must have misheard her. "Pardon?"

"Our deal is complete. I'm sending you home." Belle said, looking down to her twisting hands. "The war is over, your people are's over."

Rumpelstiltskin felt like he should be smiling...but he couldn't, at the same time. "I'm...sorry. I don't understand. What's over?"

Belle glanced up, through her long lashes. She didn't look like the frightening Dark One in that moment. She just looked like an uncertain young woman. "Our deal," she clarified in a hushed voice, like saying it aloud would be revealing too great a secret. "You held up your end, I held up mine, and now our contract is complete. I'm setting you free."



"Can you do that? Just..." Rumpelstiltskin snapped his fingers. "Like that? I can go?"

"You can go wherever you like. Go home, go somewhere else, go to another realm if that's what you fancy." Belle shrugged, trying to regain her mask of indifference, but it didn't seem to fit right. "I's not like I can't find some other servant in another village."

His newly returned heart stung. "You don't mean that."

"I never say anything I don't mean. Who knows?" Belle folded her arms, and gave a slight smile after a beat. "Maybe the next one will be a handsome young knight?"

If it stung before, it ached now. Rumpelstiltskin looked down to his maimed foot, his ears burning with shame he had only felt from one other woman. He had thought that Belle was different. That she didn't think less of him for being crippled. Something about the very idea of trading him for a younger, fitter model touched on a cold, hard knot he'd shoved deep inside since the night so many years ago, when Milah was all but draped over a pirate's lap. It wasn't fair. And he didn't want to believe it.

"Why are you tossing me out now?" he asked, his voice sounding angrier than he wanted it to. "Is it because Regina made me her monkey's paw?"

"What?" Belle blinked. "I-No, of course not, you're-I mean you-I'm sending you back to your son, damn it, why aren't you thinking about that instead?"

Logically he should, but at the moment he was hung up on her stupid little remark about a 'handsome young knight' and a dozen voices whispered "women don't like being married to cowards" in his head. He had given the Evil Queen an open opportunity to kill him, not just use him against Belle, and he hadn't had the damned courage to flee the castle when she arrived, lock himself in Belle's tower or anything else. The realization that he was a burden deflated his building anger.

"It's because I'm a liability, isn't it?"

Belle hesitated.

" are a liability to me. But not because you're weak, never weak, it's because you' are so-" she shut her eyes and paced away from him suddenly, restlessly. Her hands fluttered all over. A stack of books on the table she paced by caught her attention, and she flung them to the floor with a noise that was something between a whine and a growl.

"YOU ARE SO DAMNED FRUSTRATING!" she yelled, and he startled, tripping back onto the sofa. "I don't give a flying fairy's glittering ass what kind of male idiocy in your head makes you think this is about you, because it isn't! This is about your son! You have a chance, to go home to him, and you're just sitting there like you want to stay in the Dark Castle! Why the hell are you doing that?"

"Because I don't want to leave you!"

Well it was true, but he hadn't thought much about it before. And clearly Belle hadn't even considered it an option, because there was a long, deathly silence after the deadly seven words flew out of his mouth. She just stared at him, her mouth snapping shut, and he just stared back.

It was true, though. He didn't want to leave her. He liked sorting the library and when she asked his opinion about her books, he liked eating meals at the table with her more than he liked having enough to eat, he liked the tiny smile she gave when only a cup of tea would sooth her nerves. And he didn't want to leave her because...

"I...I like you." he swallowed. "You are someone I want to know. I want...I want to know you...and I want to see my son again, of course I do, but I want to see you again, too. Because I like you, m'lady, I think you're more than a villain in a fable."

Belle blinked at him slowly. " want to come back?"

He did. Badly. He was, if not happy, then content here. There was a village nearby. A midwife had arrived once, begging for Belle's help with a wealthy citizen's pregnant wife who was having difficulty birthing her twins. If Bae was uncomfortable with the idea of living here in Belle's castle, they would live in the village and he could simply visit her. "I...I would have to ask my son where he'd want to live, but I would. I want to come back to you."

Belle stared at him for so long he felt he'd overstepped. Then she made her way in front of him, summoning his staff to hand with a flick of her wrist and offering it to him.

"How about a new deal?"

"A new deal?"

"Yes." She didn't step back when he stood up, leaving them mere inches apart. He could nose her forehead if he wanted to. "You go home to your son, free of our deal."

"And if I come back?" Rumpelstiltskin asked. That sounded...rather open-ended for one of Belle's deals. Was there a time limit or...some detail he had overlooked?

Instead, she simply studied his face very closely. He wasn't sure anyone had ever watched him so closely before, it was almost as if she were checking to make sure he were himself again. Or committing his face to memory. She stood up on her toes, looping arms around his shoulders, before he could question it.

He couldn't remember the last time he'd been hugged by someone who wasn't his son, either. He held her just as tight, burying his face in the crook of her neck. He kept his arms around her middle, terrified of straying, but enraptured with the soft press of her curves and the fine fabric under his hands, the faint scent of paper and ink and vanilla. He was enveloped in Belle, tension melting from his bones. Her painted nails scratched the nape of his neck, ever-so-gently, sending a shiver down his spine...

"I suppose you'll have to come back so we can discuss terms..." she murmured against his shoulder, a second before golden smoke surrounded them.

Suddenly he was standing outside the gates of the Dark Castle. His staff was in his hand, he was dressed in his coat and red scarf. There was a heavy rucksack on his back. Apparently the deal started now. So...for reasons he was still grappling with, Belle had decided she didn't want him as a caretaker before. Because the Evil Queen had ripped his heart out and used him so easily? Because Belle felt threatened by letting someone come close to her? Because he was an easy target for threats?

The only thing Rumpelstiltskin knew for certain was that they still had a chance to work something out. A better deal than before, perhaps, because this time he had the option of his son being included, as well. And he wasn't going to give up so easily. He would stand up, and he would fight for this opportunity.

And maybe it would work.

After a very unqueenly temper tantrum in her chambers, Regina took a deep breath, smoothing her hair back into place. It was a set back to her revenge, but she refused to give up just yet. She couldn't stand giving Belle the satisfaction. she had to get even with that runty little bitch.

Chapter Text

The Huntsman had only seen the Dark One once before, when she was visiting the Queen. A petite woman, with reddish-brown hair, skin that look liked white marble, and a patchwork dress that seemed to mock the fine dress of a lady, and no shoes on her pale feet. If it weren't for the wicked little smile and the flat, lightless blue of her eyes, he'd mistake her for an eccentric sort of fairy.

He wasn't sure what to think at all when Queen Regina and the Dark One called him and a slew of others down to her vault of hearts, and started putting hearts back into chests. He was first, and was given an order by the Dark One to help. Her voice was sharp, her dead eyes alight with anger, and while the Huntsman wanted to flee, he didn't fancy his chances at getting far if she looked like that.

Regina's eyes were glass, her face expressionless. It would seem she'd overplayed her hand and enraged the Dark One, who was exacting revenge in a way that would hurt her majesty most: Humiliation.

That was another, slightly more spiteful, reason for him to stick around and help. The feeling of his heart thumping steadily in his chest again was delightfully foreign, and when the Dark One sent him on his way with a dismissive flick of her wrist, he led the freed captives through the woods to the nearest village. They disbanded from there, breaking off into groups, and the Huntsman headed for the last place he'd seen Princess Snow White, and her pretty friend with the red hood. He had to tell them the news.

The Dark One was no longer siding with the Evil Queen.

When he arrived in the village, he was lucky enough to run in to the friend. She looked startled to see him and to convince her he was no spy, he had to shout, "THE EVIL QUEEN IS A HEINOUS BITCH!" Which was true, but, if she'd been controlling him he wouldn't have been able to put that much emotion into it. Oh. And she'd crush his heart.

Luckily Red believed him.

She took a written message to wherever Snow White was holed up, and then later in the week, Red took him to a spot in the woods where the princess gave him a very big, very welcome hug. And then he told them everything he knew about the Queen's defenses and allies.

That was how the Huntsman had joined Snow White's army of resistance.

Without the Huntsman at her command anymore, Regina hired a handful of mercenaries to keep an eye out for a short, slender man in his late forties, with long graying brown hair, brown eyes, and a limp. One of the mercenaries, a washed-up knight named Hordor who'd spent the meeting staring at her cleavage, had snorted when she got around to the description. "Sounds like you want us to track down Spindleshanks."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Ah, begging your pardon Your Majesty, I don't suppose the coward's legacy made it all the way out here from the Frontlands. He hobbled himself to get out of the war years back, ran from the front and was the only survivor of the whole unit because of it. I know the spineless bastard well, I was to collect his son the day the Ogres vanished from the battlefield."

So Hordor was vulgar and a pig, but at least informed. Interesting. "So..." Regina hummed. "Where would, be, if given the chance to return to your lands?"

"He'd crawl home of course. He's in for a nasty surprise though," he sniggered. "Soon as his father was gone, his brat ran off too. Like father like so-Mmph! "

Regina waved her hand, silencing his foul mouth for the duration of the meeting. She could smell the toxic masculinity, and it was stifling, but she needed his knowledge of the area. "Bring him to me, and I will reward you handsomely. Fail me, then I'll make you wish you'd been on the battlefield for the Ogres to stomp into the ground. Do we have an understanding?"

The other mercenaries nodded quickly, hefting up weapons and cloaks in preparation to leave. Hordor madea choked noise, his eyes wide, unable to voice whatever was on his tiny mind. Regina rolled her eyes and flicked her wrist as she left the room with a swirl of her black skirts.

"Bring him back alive." She warned. "I've got big plans for that little mouse..."

Belle waited.

And waited.

It was futile, but she knew that already. Her caretaker never returned.

She had...hoped. She'd hoped things would be different than how she suspected it would turn out. But she wasn't wrong, and ached. It ached so much more than she was prepared for. How had she let this happen? How had she let that mousy, scared-of-his-own-shadow, trembling little thing like that get under her skin? How?!

And how had she let him go without telling him she liked him too?

Then one day Regina came swanning into the Dark Castle, heedless of Belle's previous warnings. She reported with an odd mix of pity and sneering, that a knight she'd hired on to watch out for Snow White had captured a crippled older man in the Frontlands. When they heard what sort of deal he had made with the Dark One, the knight had dragged him to the clerics.

They'd tried to drive the demons out of him, (damned clerics didn't know how help anyone, just inflict pain until they decided you'd paid enough,) with brands and flails, and eventually the poor man had enough. He jumped from the peak of the tower.

She waited for something else, then, after that news.

With a smile on her face, (fake of course, but Regina never knew the difference,) Belle once more aided the Evil Queen. And Snow White, and her charming prince, of course. She played them all like an orchestra, setting the stage for a most satisfying revenge. She would give Regina what she thought she wanted, and oh did she want it so desperately. The Dark Curse, no more happy endings, especially not for Snow White. And then...

Belle would watch it crumble around Regina's ears as Snow White's child rose up to destroy her, strengthened by the power of True Love.

And then...well, if an angry mob freshly woken from a curse turned on Belle after they ripped Regina apart limb from limb, so be it. Maybe there would be a mix-up in the Underworld and she'd catch a glimpse of Rumple in the afterlife...

Lacey French had bought The Rabbit Hole, but she never ventured any further down Blackwull Lane. It was a bad neighborhood, the worst in town, where the Leroys all went when they weren't at work, out drinking, or sitting on a cot in jail for disturbing the peace of the other, tidy little neighborhoods Storybrooke had to offer. It would be a waste of time and money to think of purchasing any buildings on that street, Lacey rarely even went to The Rabbit Hole to collect rent, sending Dove instead, so why should she venture this far in her Cadillac?

At least...Belle believed all that when she awoke after twenty-eight years of living a cursed life, her Savior standing there in Mrs. Lucas' little B&B.

She'd had bigger fish to fry, then: She had to get the Savior to believe, but, Belle couldn't overplay her hand and risk Regina finding out she was awake too soon. But, on a third hand, Belle couldn't be so detached that the Savior got bored and drove off. It was a delicate balancing act, even after Regina did finally put two and two together, but she had managed it in the end. The Dark One was on the cusp of her ultimate revenge, and the Evil Queen was on the brink of her demise.

And then, just after she'd sent Emma and Regina off on a wild goose chase to save young Henry from a sleeping curse...


Jefferson waltzed into the shop with an envelope in his hands, looking around curiously. Belle hadn't known he was in town, not really, she was shocked to see him. Oh, sure, his eyes had a madness one only caught in Wonderland, but he was here, whole, and bearing a grudge against Regina Mills. She'd promised him his daughter back, and she lied.

"I have my own revenge schemes to fulfill, Jefferson," Belle clucked, shrugging into her coat. "Rest assured, the Evil Queen won't last another month."

"That's funny. You must not know what she's got on you."

Something about his tone was far too patient for Jefferson. The man could never sit still, and he was rarely ever patient when he was all there. Belle gave him another look, narrowing in on that envelope.

"What's that?"

"This?" He held it out to her. "Oh this is Regina's insurance policy. I thought you might like to look at it before she tries to use it."

When Belle didn't move to take the envelope, Jefferson put it down on a counter and left quickly. There was a total of five seconds of silence, from the moment the bell stopped jingling, before she cracked and went for the envelope.

It was nothing special on the outside. Manilla, standard size and yellowish in color, little metal fastener keeping the flap shut. She pried it open and took a peek inside. There was a sheet of paper and a photograph, the paper reading You'll find him at 111 Blackwull Lane, Apartment 12 in Jefferson's blocky handwriting.



Belle plucked out the photo, hesitantly flipping it around to see the image on the front.

It was blurry, as if Jefferson had snapped the picture and ran. But it wasn't indistinct, Belle could see the half-opened door and the man behind it very clearly, and a sliver of the apartment inside. The man was in the way though, him and his cane.

A sharp nose, dark eyes, and longish dark hair were all captured in detail, to the point that it slipped from her numb fingers.

She knew who he was.

But was it possible?

He was never sure why it happened, or even what happened in general. One day he felt perfectly fine, the next he was scared to leave the safety of his little apartment.

To be fair, he didn't live in the best neighborhood to start with, so that didn't encourage him to try stepping out. Blackwull Lane was essentially the slums of Storybrooke. The Rabbit Hole was the crown jewel, down on the corner, and that really said a lot about the quality of the street. He used to be worried about getting mugged coming home late. Now, it made him nauseous to think of stepping out in the middle of the day so he had most things he needed delivered; Groceries, his prescriptions, fax paper, and so on.

The fax machine was a fabulous invention, really. If he couldn't send his work in, he would be a lousy accountant for the town government.

Leaving the apartment also tended to give him more migraines, further encouraging him not to leave. And the migraines pre-dated his agoraphobia, they'd been going on so long he couldn't remember not having them. They featured pain radiating from his temples down his neck and into his shoulders, a stabbing pressure behind his eyes, and flashes behind his eyelids. He couldn't sleep through a migraine, but the flashing images felt like strange dreams sometimes.

He could never really remember them, but that didn't make them any less painful...

Lately, his migraines were getting worse. They were starting to happen in the apartment, too, and he couldn't sleep through some of them. The increasing lack of sleep and the odd surprise visit from the mayor had made him stress, and stress was great for migraines. Well, great for causing them.

He was recovering from a migraine that had him bedridden for most of the day right now. It was brought on by a visit from the mayor, one of her surprise visits that usually did cause a migraine, but never one so severe. It was like each new headache was the worst he'd ever had. The thought of food was sickening, so he ended up settling for a cup of tea, instead.

The kettle was whistling when there was a knock at the door.

He hoped fervently that it wasn't the mayor, or that strange snap-and-run photographer from last week. Sometimes a migraine flared back up when he was just getting over it, if he weren't making wise choices. Although turning down the mayor was usually an unwise choice when she arrived for a surprise visit.

"Who is it?" he asked, pressing an ear to the door.

"Ah...this is Belle," a woman asked. A woman who was not the mayor, unless Mayor Mills was developing an Australian accent. "Are you...I, um, I'd like to talk to you."

Oh lord.

Mayor Mills sometimes took advantage of his unusual living situation. Since he wasn't in an office at town hall, or otherwise, she took this as an invitation to approach him with...questionable material. You know. To make him cook the town's books. And he was terrified to tell her no, because this was the only job he had, and crazy shut-ins weren't in high demand. He was stuck at the mercy of Mayor Mills, but if one of her schemes had ticked someone off, she wouldn't hesitate to throw him under the bus.

Maybe he could use his cane in a pinch if this was a trap...?

"I, uh, h-how can I help you, miss?"

There was a pause. There was a creaky floorboard out there, the vistor was standing on it, shifting her weight. "Um...well...I understand you work a great deal with Mayor Mills? She...refered me to you."

Sending people unannounced to his home to do work he probably wouldn't be compensated for? Yes. This was Mayor Mills' handiwork. He peeked out before unlatching the chain, though, just to make sure there weren't a half dozen goons out there waiting for him to open up. Fortunately, it was just a petite young woman with brown hair and beautiful blue eyes. She didn't even have her hands in the pockets of her fancy wool coat.

But she did stare at him oddly. A dull ache throbbed at his temples, but it wasn't where his migraines usually started, so he chalked it up to a coincidence.

"Would you like some tea?" he asked as she stepped inside. "I just put the kettle on."

"That would be lovely, thank you." The woman nodded distractedly, more interested in his apartment than himself.

What had she said her name was? He moved to his tiny kitchenette, grabbing two tea mugs as he tried to recall it. It was something short, wasn't it? Ellen? No, that's not right, ah...god he was going to have to ask. "I'm sorry, what was your name again?"

"Hmm? Oh. Ah, Belle," she said, then waited like he might recognize it. "Don't you know who I am?"

"I...ah, I don't get out much," he blinked, that ache spreading through his skull. Oh great. He was going to need a second migraine pill. "Should I?"

"Oh." The expectant look on her face faltered, but a pleasant smile covered any disappointment before he could think about it. "Well, it isn't that important, really. Most people call me Ms. French anyway. So, ah, what do they call you?"

"Mr. Gold, mainly." He shrugged, pulling the cream out the fridge and setting it on the counter by the extra mug. "Cream and sugar?"

"I...yes, how did you know?"

How did he know? "A...a lucky guess, I suppose." He shrugged, pouring the tea in the mups and heading to the drawer he kept his medications in. "Now what can I do for you Ms. French? What did Mayor Mills refer you to me for?"

'Please, please, please don't ask for tax fraud, please, please, please...'

He fished out his migraine medication and shook out a pill. Belle look up from where she was doctoring her tea, raising an eyebrow. "Aspirin?"

"I wish." He chuckled. "I have chronic migraines. I've been having a rough couple of days lately, I can feel another one coming on."

"Oh..." Belle nodded, taking a cautious sip of hot tea. "I see. So, ah, did you hear about the mayor's son?"

"No. I've been dead to the world since the day before yesterday with my last migraine." He had never met young Henry, but had read in the paper how he'd run off and brought back his birth mother. Emma Swan had shaken up the town ever since. "Is he alright?"

"We'll see. He's in the hospital at the moment...speaking of, should you see a doctor about those migraines?"

"I know, and I'll...get around to it," he evaded. "Now, ah, how can I help you?"

Belle hesitated a moment, but then began to talk about finances. She was looking to purchase the library, she said, and he listened along as she outlined her plan. He found her a scrap of paper and a pen so she could scratch out some figures, claiming to have forgotten her briefcase and files. The whole time, he was aware that his migraine pill wasn't helping one iota. The pain was growing worse, and then his ears started to buzz. And then there was a flash of multicolored light that started making him hallucinate:

A pale young woman in a patchwork dress. A young teen with his brown eyes and curly black hair. A dark castle with dust everywhere, books stacked to the ceilings. Other images flashed by his eyes too fast to process. And then--

Things were still very much up in the air.

The curse was broken, Regina was scraping together whatever she could to fight with once the Charmings let her out of jail on some...some goody-goody bullshit reason more sensibility than sense. Meanwhile, the Charmings were trying to rebuild what they could, the Savior Emma Swan was struggling to find her place in it all, with her dear (and rightfully delighted,) son at her side. Magic was off the table as long as the True Love potion was locked up in Belle's study, and Regina's strong suit had always been bullying, never strategy.

For now, Belle was content to keep to herself. And keep Rumple to herself, even though she naturally had to make concessions to give him some freedom to explore Storybrooke and meet new people. And most importantly: Find his son.

That was proving difficult though. Half the town had been sorted, but so far there was no sign of Baelfire. Rumple hadn't made it to his house in the Frontlands, but a neighboring family had said Bae left the day after their deal was struck, to find his father.  The daughter, Morraine, was the same age as Bae, and had never seen him in school. That wasn't...that wasn't a good sign. But they hadn't given up yet.

(There was the small matter of that favor Miss Swan owned her...and finding people was a bail bondswoman's job.)

But one thing was settled.

She kissed his cheek when she leaped into his arms when the curse was broken and he said, "Belle?" He kissed her forehead before vanishing into his bedroom at her pink mansion on the first night. When Belle woke up to find he had made breakfast the next morning, she finally gave in to the urge to see if tea was sweeter on his lips.

(Well...technically it might not be, but it felt like it.)

 It was love. And it was more than enough, after years of loneliness for both of them, and they took it one step at a time. It was...difficult to date when the town was still settling, but making dinner at home was nice. (Rumple was trying to show her how to cook, and she'd only set one pan on fire so far.) Above all else, Belle wanted to keep the heart he had trusted her with safe.

And oddly enough, one night when they were curled up on the sofa, him reading over her shoulder, they had gotten to talk to something about the characters in the book. The two lovers that grew to trust each other over the story. Rumple pressed a kiss to her neck. "Do you trust me?"

It wasn't even a question: "With my life." Belle replied, turning to kiss his jaw, humming against his stubble. "Do you trust me?"

"With my life," he smiled, shifting them around so that he could hold her hand to his chest. His heart thumped steadily under her palm. "And with my heart."