Rumplestiltskin smiled softly to himself, anniversaries always made him introspective. If anyone had told him six years ago, where he’d be now, he would have thought that they’d been at the Dunbroch Ale. He could scarcely believe the events of the past few years and he’d lived through them. He’d made a deal with the Dark One out of necessity, he’d wanted to give Bae his best chance, and he’d prepared for a life of misery in payment. Instead it had turned out to be the best deal he’d ever made - he’d found true love.
Five years ago, to this very day, he’d somehow got the courage to kiss Belle. He would always be a coward but she made him brave. That kiss had turned disastrous, when true love had sparked, and he had been thrown back in the dungeons. Belle had left him there for three days, the magic of the castle supplying everything he needed; food, water, blankets, clean clothes. Then she had come and tried to make him leave, and once again he had refused, gently reminding her that he had promised forever.
It hurt to remember even now, how she had stared at him with such confused disbelief. He hadn’t understood then what had happened, he hadn’t known that true love existed. That knowledge had come later, and even once he knew about it, he couldn’t believe that he could be blessed with such a thing. He was just an old crippled spinner, the town coward, and surely something as magical and pure as true love was meant for royalty, not for the likes of him. Belle couldn’t believe that he could possibly love her at all, so they’d made quite the pair. It took them nearly a year before they both admitted the truth to one another.
By then Belle had helped him find Bae. He had taken the gold and apprenticed as a squire to the royal house of Queen Snow and King David, with the goal of one day becoming a knight. Rumplestiltskin could still see Bae’s self-satisfied expression. He had been, and still was, very proud of his boy but he was also utterly terrified. His terror had decreased to merely being worried sick, since Bae had fallen in love with Princess Emma, the only daughter of the king and queen.
Bae and Emma had been married almost a year now, and just welcomed into the world their first child. Rumplestiltskin doubted that Bae would be sent anywhere too dangerous, as they would hopefully not wish to risk the future queen’s consort. Rumplestiltskin had little doubt that somehow his son had also been blessed with the miracle of true love. The spinning wheel came to a stop, he liked to watch the wheel and think, but he liked to spend time with his wife more. Belle liked to have time to herself every day, after so many years alone she couldn’t handle constant company, but he thought that he was probably safe to go and find her now, it had been a good few hours since their morning meal.
Leaving heavily on his staff Rumplestiltskin climbed the winding stone stairs up to the library. That was the most likely place to find his true love, but he found nothing but books. Grimacing he crossed the castle to the next tower where Belle kept her workroom. True loves kiss had broken the curse of the Dark One just over three years ago, but Belle could still mix potions as they didn’t require magic to make. Rumplestiltskin frowned, wincing as he flexed his leg, losing her magic had been a difficult adjustment for Belle.
There were days when he worried that she regretted it. He had fallen in love with her as the Dark One, and he wouldn’t have complained if she had chosen to stay the Dark One. He loved all of her, even the parts that belonged to the darkness. Magic was all she’d had for so long, Belle hadn’t known how to live without it at first. Breaking the curse had been her choice, she’d only ever taken on the powers to save her kingdom - to be a hero - and it was hard for her to face how the darkness had warped that desire over the two centuries she’d been the Dark One.
If she wasn’t in the library, or her workroom, then he knew where to find her. It seemed he wasn’t the only one who got introspective on anniversaries.
“Belle,” Rumplestiltskin said softly, pushing open the door that led to what had been Belle’s locked room.
The enchantments that replicated the window, and balcony, from her room at her father’s castle no longer worked. There was just blank grey stone where the window used to be, but the room otherwise hadn’t changed. It remained exactly as it had always been - a reminder of who Belle used to be before becoming the Dark One.
“Belle,” Rumplestiltskin repeated more urgently, when he caught sight of her.
Belle was on her knees, hunched over herself. She hadn’t heard him and her expression was frightening; it was a mixture of misery, apathy and pain. A glint of light reflected off something in her hand. She was staring intently at it and Rumplestiltskin’s gut clenched, he knew what it was and he knew that this was not good.
“Belle sweetheart, Belle!” Rumplestiltskin called desperately. He grabbed her shoulder and Belle startled, her wounded eyes staring at him imploringly.
“I need it,” Belle whispered, her voice cracking. “I need it back.”
“Oh sweetheart,” Rumplestiltskin breathed, sinking to the floor next to her with difficulty.
He pulled her into his arms and Belle let him, pillowing her head against his shoulder. Her knuckles were white around the pommel of the dagger, she had it in a death grip and he knew better than to try and take it from her just yet. The dagger had once been the source of the Dark One’s power, whomever held it controlled the Dark One’s soul. The very idea was enough to make him physically sick, the thought of chains around Belle’s soul. She was so fiercely independent, ‘nobody chooses my fate but me’ and he thanked Merlin everyday that Belle had never lost control of the dagger, it would have destroyed her.
Where the dagger had once had Belle’s name emblazoned on the side, it was now clear. The Dark One was no more, the power had gone back to the earth, and the dagger was just that - an ornate dagger. It was still sharp but there was nothing magical about it now. Belle had given him the dagger after her curse was broken, she’d wanted him to keep it as a symbolic gesture that she was giving him everything that she was. He wasn’t ashamed to admit he’d cried, right before he started panicking that he didn’t have anything of equal significance to give her.
This wasn’t the first time Belle had taken the dagger. Sometimes she said she could hear it whispering to her, calling for her. He didn’t know whether he believed that. He certainly believed that Belle believed that, but he thought that it was probably more the daggers symbolism. Once it had been the only thing that could kill her, and it would transfer the power of the Dark One to another. It represented who she had been for over two centuries, before she’d made a deal with a poor crippled spinner and true love had changed everything.
That was the real issue here. It wasn’t that Belle missed the power so much, as that she didn’t believe their life together could be real. The darkness had been all she had known for so long, it was all she felt she deserved. However, the dagger was blank, her name wasn’t there any longer, and it would never be there again. She still had to check, he understood that, there were times when he thought this couldn’t be real and had to be a dream. He’d never thought he would find love. Milah had made sure he knew how unlovable he was. Perhaps that was why they fit, the former dark one and the town coward, both of them outcasts, both of them unlovable except when it came to each other.
“You didn’t want to keep it,” Rumplestiltskin reminded her. “It was your choice.”
“I know,” Belle sniffled, her lip trembling as her eyes filled with tears. “That was a mistake. I can’t do this.”
“Yes you can. You’re the bravest person I know,” Rumplestiltskin said firmly. “You don’t need magic, there’s nothing you can’t do without it. With your brilliance and determination, there isn’t a problem out there that stands a chance. Magic was a tool, nothing more.”
“I know,” Belle repeated, her breath hitching. “The darkness twisted everything. It’s better that it’s gone but I just ...”
“I know,” Rumplestiltskin said soothingly, dropping a kiss onto her forehead. “I know sweetheart, it’s ok. Everything’s going to be ok.”
Belle’s death grip on the dagger relaxed. Moving slowly so he didn’t spook her, Rumplestiltskin reached over and took it back. He always worried about Belle having the dagger, and his fears had been well founded more than once. However, no matter what darkness Belle fell into, he’d always be there to either stand with her or gently pull her back to the light. He put the dagger on the floor next to him, freeing his hand to wipe her tears away. Belle gave him a watery smile and then lunged, pressing her lips firmly against his.
The power of true love hummed beneath his skin and Belle sighed, relaxing against him, his kiss reassuring her more than words ever could. Rumplestiltskin knew that Belle’s favorite books always had happy endings, but he didn’t think there was any such thing in reality. Nothing in life was ever perfect, there would always be problems. Life was a journey, the road long and winding, but he was beyond grateful to walk the path alongside Belle. So long as they were together, everything would be alright.