They agreed to start over. To see what would happen now that he was free of the curse. That everybody was safe after Hook's sacrifice, though Gold couldn't stop thinking that the pirate was already dead anyway because of the wound from the Excalibur.
Belle wanted to go to college, to see the world. It was scary, yes, but now, still as a hero, he could do that, go with her. It was so amazing that she wanted him to go with her at all. So amazing that after all his scheme didn't work and didn't have to work. He was both alive and free of darkness. And Belle was with him.
They prepared everything carefully, bought small apartment in New York City, close to Belle's chosen college, and set the date of departure two weeks before the new semester. They visited Bae's grave the day before. It was painful leaving his son behind, but as hurtful as it was, Bae was dead. Bae would want him to move on, to concentrate on those who were alive. On Belle.
The town line was, as he knew now, mercifully free of a dwarf-turned-tree into whom they could have crashed the night when he tried to escape Emma. Now it was broad, open and definitely less alluring.
But he had to stay calm. He had to be brave. Belle left him in this very place for being a coward and he was determined to never let this repeat.
He managed to keep it together longer than expected, really. They made it to New York, to their new apartment. Only when the luggage was brought in and the door closed, he felt his strength leaving.
Belle caught his hand when he stumbled. He managed to land on the sofa. New, unfamiliar sofa, one might add.
'I'm tired, Belle,' he explained quickly, taking a deep breath.
'It's quite cold here.'
'True. Come here,' Belle sat down next to him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. He cuddled into her gratefully, already feeling much better.
Not for long.
It was an accident of course, but maybe it felt right just because of that. The punishment. He stared at his bloodied hand for some time, at blood dripping into the sink and that one piece of glass embedded in the center of his palm. He couldn't use his magic and it felt right too.
'Rumple!' Belle exclaimed, appearing in the door, and he grabbed the towel in panic, hiding his hand. Gods, now Belle will think that he's trying to force her to take care of him.
But Belle had none of that.
'Show me,' she commanded. 'How did this happen?'
'I broke the glass, I'm sorry. That was an accident.'
'It's okay, just a glass,' she said absentmindedly and then smiled at the similarity of the words. 'But your hand, Rumple, that doesn't look good.'
He hissed in pain, when she tried to get him to uncurl his palm.
'Rumple, I think we should get you to the hospital. I think this may need to be stitched and you can't wait for stitches too long. Plus there is that piece of glass that I'd prefer not to get out myself. Sit down, hold the towel, okay?' she pushed the tightly folded towel into his hand, positioning it so it would stabilize the glass piece. 'I'll call the cab.'
'Our Lady Providence?' suggested the driver once Belle helped him into the cab.
'No!' Gold shouted, earning two surprised looks. 'Somewhere else, please...'
They went to some other hospital and Belle mercifully didn't ask any questions. Yet.
Hospital corridor reminded him of Zelena, of his own helplessness, weakness and cowardice. The white and green tiles, crowd of nervous people, smell of medicines, bright, bright lights...
'Rumple?' Belle slipped her arm around his waist. 'Do you feel faint?'
He noticed that he started to walk with his head hung lower and lower.
'It's okay,' he whispered. 'Let's go.'
Still, they had to wait for their turn in the emergency room. Belle found them spot in the corner on the hard, hospital chairs, among other people with dislocated joints, swollen bruises and nasty cuts. From time to time they could see other, sicker, people wheeled in on gurneys. Just as he himself had to be brought in couple of months ago.
'Rumple, why not the other hospital? It was closer... Was it because of something that happened... You know...'
Gold grimaced, moving his injured hand to feel the pain, to ground himself.
'Yes,' he whispered. 'But let's talk about this later. At home. Please?'
Belle didn't add anything else, but he had seen it in her eyes: the talk will be long. And indeed, there were so many things they didn't talk about yet. Both of them seemed to always had better ideas of what to do.
The nurse called his name and they both went into the examination room. Light was even brighter here, tiring, distracting. He was instructed to sit down on a chair and lay his hand on a table.
It turned out that the hospital had access to his medical history anyway. After the doctor cleaned the wound and sew it shut, he asked about his heart. Gold had to fight hard to not give in to flashback featuring Zelena. Some part of him wanted to sleep forever and another one wanted to scream, not able to pressure everything he felt into something small enough to be manageable, unseen to other people, the last form of control he had.
Belle looked at him horrified. Meanwhile, the nurse tried to take his blood pressure and pulse and was admonishing him for being too nervous. He tried to calm down, answer doctor's questions and convey through the eyes alone that he'd really would want to wait with Belle's questions until they were home. Even as simultaneously he truly didn't want to talk at all.
Rumple looked pale and tired, when they finally got back home. She made them quick, light supper and then they both retired to their bedroom. Rumple sat on the edge of the bed, tense, looking ill even after that little of soup he ate. But Belle didn't want to postpone the talk. Not anymore.
'Rumple...' she said, sitting next to him, 'so you had heart attack when you were here last time? You were brought to that other hospital, right?'
'Yes,' he nodded. 'It was the curse manifesting itself in the world without magic.'
'It's not,' she sighed.
'It is,' he repeated stubbornly. 'I did so many horrible things. It was fitting. It still feels fitting.'
She recalled what he told her in the library the day they were running from Merida. How he wanted to let go while being in the coma, not feeling worthy to live.
'Rumple, the curse changes people. We all could have seen what happened to Emma and Hook. Now that you're not cursed... you can just live. As a good man. As my husband.'
He shook his head.
'I might have been cursed, but I did all these things myself, Belle.'
'That was because you were seeing them as best solutions to your problems. Rumple, you did many things wrong, but your goals were usually right. Even about the hat, what you really wanted was to feel safe, right?'
He nodded, his cheeks coloring a little.
'Rumple, now you can think on your own how to attain these goals. Without the Dark One interfering.'
He slowly shook his head, visibly shaking.
'Belle, after three hundred years with it, I learned to think like that on my own.'
'But it is very promising that you're admitting it freely and aloud.'
'Belle... Can you possibly...?' he stuttered, looking at her with puppy eyes.
Belle braced herself, expecting, despite knowing better, something manipulative.
'...hold me?' he whispered.
'No, no, of course not, I'm sorry!' he panicked straight away and tried to stand up.
'Oh, come here, silly man,' she reached for him and pulled him close, smiling through constricted throat when he immediately melted against her. Indeed, it felt like a good place to start dealing with things. So much better than sitting apart projecting hurt and mistrust.
It felt heavenly to have her holding him. At least for a moment, before he had to confess that single, worst possible thing to be confessed.
'Oh Belle... I'm not the man you think I am. I was so afraid to die. So afraid of what's gonna be next. Of that pain, unrelenting, shredding my soul, forever. I still am afraid. I wanted the power back. I wanted to be the Dark One again. I prepared everything to be so. It just didn't work. I was so afraid... A coward. I didn’t do it only because I couldn’t do it, I failed but I wanted this. I still want. I don’t want to die, Belle... I don’t want to die!'
Why she was still holding him, letting him cry, was beyond him. She was an angel.
'Rumple, but you did the brave thing back then, you told me to go, completely selflessly.'
'I couldn’t let you die' he whined. 'That was selfish too.'
'No, Rumple. You can be afraid and be a hero. And you don’t have to be a hero to be a good man, man I love.'
'I don’t? I still feel I do. I... You think I can do so much more that I really can, Belle. And I'm constantly afraid I won't live up to your expectations.'
'Rumple, no, it's not like that' she cradled and rocked him like a baby. 'I love you always. I really think you can do it all. Especially now.'
'And if I can't?...
'Then I love you too. I'm sorry if I made you think that you have to be perfect. I just don't want you to hurt anybody, yourself included, and to talk to me when something's happening. But you think I'm perfect too, right? And I have this impossible standard to live up to as well. And you were comparing yourself to that imagined perfect me, right? No wonder we had a hard time to meet out expectations.'
'Oh.... But you are per... Oh. Oh, I see. Oh, I'm sorry, Belle... Was I doing this to you as well? Oh Belle... I was expecting too much from you, right? And I was wrong, it was just me, not you...'
He started to cry anew and she hushed him.
'It will be okay. It will be okay now that we know that. We can work on it. You can be afraid. I'm afraid too, often. We can deal with it together, alright? And, look, you've been so selfless letting me go... When you thought you were going to die...' Her voice trembled.
He threw a quick look at her, almost hurt, or did she imagine that? Then he turned away from her a bit, probably to hide that he was losing control over his emotions.
'Rumple?' she prodded. 'Rumple, what it is? You can tell me.'
'No, no, it's nothing, Belle, it's nothing!' he frantically shook his head, holding back tears.
'Rumple. We are meant to talk with each other now.'
'You won't like it!'
That hurt, mostly because it roused all the old suspicions.
'Rumple, what have you done?'
He hung his head. A few tears dropped on his hands, he couldn't contain it anymore.
'Rumple?' Belle heard her voice getting progressively stern, but couldn't help it. It had the desired effect, though.
'I... It's not about what I did. It's... Just... You said, when you came back, that... That it was the first selfless thing I did. I mean, letting you go.'
Belle nodded, unsure of what he meant by that.
'I remember, Rumple. Rumple?'
He hid his face into his hands.
'Yes, Belle, I just... Thank you for telling me that.'
'Okay, I don't know what this is about but I don't think it's about thanking me.'
'You can tell me. It won't be anything worse than...'
'...than what I already did, yes. And that's why I can't tell you.'
'Rumple, I don't understand!' Belle yelled, frustrated.
'It wasn't the first!' Gold yelled back, set off by her anger. 'It wasn't the first! I let you go earlier! Every damn time you wanted out, I've let you! I came back for you when the bear attacked! I got back Merida's heart! I died for you! I killed my father for you, to protect you! I died! You have no idea what the underworld is like! Even Zelena was better than hell! Why do you say that this was the first selfless thing I did?!'
Belle looked at him pale and speechless. So that was it. He finally destroyed everything. He would leave the apartment for Belle, go somewhere else, anywhere, she shouldn’t have to be burdened by him...
'I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Rumple. You are right.'
'No, I'm not, I'm sorry,' he heard himself. 'I yelled at you. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have, it's my fault...'
He was babbling incoherently, he knew, but couldn't stop, not until Belle hugged him.
'I'm sorry, Rumple.'
'It's okay. I hurt you. It's not your fault.'
'It is. That one is.'
'But Belle, I've hurt you so much!'
'I forgave you. Now if you could do the same for me?'
'Belle, you don't understand, I've hurt you! You don't have to be forgiven!'
'Shh, Rumple, calm down. And listen. Being hurt has absolutely nothing to do with asking for forgiveness. You seem to think that being hurt absolves me from anything. That doesn't work like this. It's separate. You can't say that being hurt is equal to being morally clean. I can be hurt and still do something that I shouldn't do, and then take my responsibility and apologize. Doesn't matter that you did something even worse. It's not about keeping books and calculating balance. I don't think we should pin the fault for every single thing. I couldn't know how the curse works and you couldn't tell me that. We know what happened now. We can move on.'
He wasn't able to calm down just yet.
'I'm so sorry, Belle! So sorry for everything I've done! What I did to you! I hurt you so much! I asked you to marry me and you've agreed, but all the time I knew that the curse won't be silenced. I knew that I won't be what you want, what you deserved! And I still wanted you to be my wife! I'm so sorry, Belle!...'
'Rumple,' Belle looked him in the eyes with very serious expression.'Can you be quiet and listen?'
He nodded, a bit frightened, but surprised out of his frantic thoughts.
'I married you knowing you are the Dark One. Dark. It was all on the label. Please, don't accuse me of not having any brain. I can take the responsibility for my own decisions. If my freely chosen husband was cursed with the evil curse, it's somewhat expected of him to not act as an angel. I was drawn to this, but never had the courage to admit it. I was drawn to the possibility of changing you, the evil sorcerer, back into the man, by the power of my love. And I admit, I had a lot of unrealistic expectations, both of you and the power of that love. I was so disappointed that my love wasn't stronger than your curse. I always thought that our relationship is enough to make you a good man. When it wasn't I didn't want to believe it. I still was somewhat sure that the curse is permanently silent, that you're doing everything on your own and that I wasn't enough for you, that you wanted just the power. You hid well not only your plans but your goals and I had to guess what's going on with you and I fell on the old schemes of thinking. I know you didn't want me to worry, that you didn't want to appear weak and needy, and that you were simply sure that you're not important and deserving to be helped. This was all unnecessary because I do want to help you, I'll not think ill of you for needing help and you really are that important to me. And I'm glad as hell that now I don't need to compete with some crazy curse that tells you that you can't trust me. Now we were gifted a second chance, where we can use the knowledge from our mistakes to actually build something new.'
Gold nodded frantically. There was a lot of thoughts whirling in his mind, screaming that some parts of what Belle just said weren't really fair. But the most overwhelming emotion was his own guilt.
'I'll do anything you want.'
'No. I don't want to control you. And I really don't want you to feel like you need my permission to do anything in fear that I'd leave you.'
'Then what should I do?...'
'What would you want to do?'
'I don't know. I just want to make you happy. I've never been able to make Milah happy.'
'She told you that?'
'And was she telling you what to do?'
Gold lowered his head, not sure how to answer, but sure that he didn't have anything to be proud of.
'She was telling me sometimes, but I never managed to get it right. Other times she was just saying that I should know what to do.'
'I won't be doing either, Rumple. Promise. Not anymore.'
He couldn't stop the traitorous thought that there were too many impossible promises in their relationship and not all of them came from him.
'Belle... I... Well, thank you. I'm still scared that I won't be enough though.'
'You are enough already.'
'It's too new for me to believe straight away,' he admitted.
'Too new? Rumple, why? Didn't you know earlier...'
'I didn't,' he cut in. 'Earlier I was the Dark One. You wanted me to be a good man. And however much I would try, I still felt trapped, like I somehow tricked you into being with me and made you unhappy, but I didn't manage to gather enough courage to tell you all about the curse. I was too afraid you'd leave me if you knew that I weren't good enough,' he admitted quietly. 'It was so intimidating hearing you talking about what a good man I've become.'
'Oh, Rumple... Well, then I'm sorry I gave you the impression that I won't understand. Like I said, I knew I'm marrying the Dark One... Or at least I thought I knew. I just wanted to be everything to you...' she sighed.
'But...' he hesitated. 'Belle, I wouldn't dream of being everything to you. I'd want you to have so much more in life. It's not about me being undeserving, it's just natural that one can have more. I would tell the same thing to Bae.'
She blinked, surprised. This wasn't what she expected to hear, and she was a bit ashamed realizing that she was expecting to hear the heartfelt assurances that she is everything to him. She felt like a child caught on behaving much more immature for her age.
'Maybe it was a bit too black and white...' she admitted. It was too true for comfort. And reminded her of something quite nasty.
'Yes,' she sighed, pained. 'You're right. I tried to have too much. I remember women like that from my childhood. I hated being around them and still... Oh, Rumple, I don't want to turn into one of those old ladies! They were practically emanating bitterness and tried to inform everyone how much wiser they are just because they had their share of suffering! A lot of older noblewomen at my father's court were like this and I always avoided them. They shown me what could happen to me if I weren't careful enough. They made me certain that I don't want to marry Gaston or anyone like him. They were living picture what resentment looks like. And though their suffering was real and undeserved, I wasn't really able to feel sorry for them. They seemed to demand me to feel sorry for them, so naturally, I wasn't going to. And now I realized that if... if you didn't return, I might have become one of them!'
'No, Belle...' he protested weakly, looking a bit overwhelmed. 'I really don't think you could be like that. Milah could be like that, but not you.'
That was nice, but Belle didn't need compliments as much as some reality checks. She decided to delve deeper.
'I wanted my love to be the single thing to transform you into a better man,' she admitted. 'I wanted to be the one who would fix you.'
'Fix me?... But... Now you're practically saying that you never believed I can change. You wanted to change me.' He felt hot tears flooding to his eyes. 'But you said earlier... So...you never believed in me after all?...' he whispered, defeated. 'But I thought you did, it kept me going while without you I would already let the curse take over...' he whispered the last words. 'It's the same now, Belle, right?... You made me a hero that night with a bear, even if realistically we should just be killed. Now I'm trying all I can to behave like that hero, but I'm so afraid, and it feels like I'm breaking, but I keep acting to be the man you want me to be. Because I don't want to lose you again Belle. I'm so sorry that I'm not the man you want me to be, I'm so, so sorry!'
He was crying earnestly now, curled into himself, not even trying to force back the violent sobs. But then he felt warm arms embracing him, pulling him in a hug, so he continued to cry into Belle's breasts.
'Belle... I'm... I'm angry at you... I'm so sorry! Please don't leave me!'
'I'm not leaving. Tell me more, tell all about why are you angry? It's okay, I can take it.'
'No, no, Belle, please...”
She put both hands on the sides of his head. He closed his eyes.
'Rumple. Rumple, sweetheart, look at me. You can be angry at me. It's okay. I won't leave you for it. I'm no saint, I admit that wanting to fix you was a step too far, even if unconscious at the time. You can always tell me if I'm hurting you somehow, in fact you should. '
'It's.. It's just I don't want you to sacrifice yourself for me. And that fixing thing led to that, right? I can't be grateful for you hurting yourself for me, because it doesn't help me. At all. It's pointless for me, but then I'm starting to wonder why isn't it pointless for you, and...' he gulped the air like drowning, 'and I feel used, like a thing! Does this even make sense?'
She nodded, patiently waiting for more to come. He took a deep breath.
'I'm... I'm angry because you tried to take my responsibility and it didn't help me at all. You were always inspiring me to be a better man but now it's like you canceled that, saying that I can't do anything and so I have to be changed by someone else, by force even if need be. That I don't really matter, I'm only an object to be fixed, and you wanted to be the hero who would manage the feat! I'm so sorry!'
'Shh, Rumple... I... I might not thought everything through. I'm sorry about that, really. And embarrassed. And even more willing to work on the solution. You're right, I was too sure of myself thinking that it's my job to change you. Gods, now that I’m saying this aloud it sounds ugly. I... I wanted to prove myself that I'm what I always wanted to be. That I’m brave and loving and that I can solve the big problems. You’re right, I had trouble leaving the responsibility to others, especially when I cared so much that I needed results right away. I thought that I’m not worth much if I can't do what I want to be done, but you're right, I finally took the agency from you. I'm sorry. But please, believe me, I wouldn’t do this if I didn't care for you. I care for you no matter what you feel or what you’re doing. If I don’t agree with something that you’re doing, it doesn’t matter that I stopped caring, okay? I'm ready to help when you need and want it. And it's okay to be afraid. It's what you do with it that matters, if you let it make you hurt others or not. Tell me when you’re afraid, we can manage it better together, okay? Okay?'
He looked up, trembling a little, flushed, but calmer, tired. He nodded weakly.
'The curse couldn't be counteracted by someone else's love alone', he explained in a detached voice. 'It's not enough to love someone to change him, curse or not. I learned that the only change was possible when I wanted it myself. You inspired that in me, real me, you and Bae. You really did it, don't worry. I fought for you. Until it was too strong to control. Until it forbade me to tell anyone that things are not as pretty as it seemed. You believed that you managed to silence the curse, that I am a normal man now. But you couldn't know how strong the curse is. It's not your fault that you didn't know. But Belle, why didn't you think that it might be stronger than you?' He straightened, looking sideways. 'You didn't want to deal with this together with me as well.'
'You're right,' she admitted quietly. 'And thinking you're normal, good man, I thought you guilty of everything. I'm sorry.'
'It's okay now.'
'It's because you really did change, Rumple. You sacrificed your life for others, for me. You was the Dark One who really became a better man. So you either did all the bad things out of your free will or...' she hesitated, 'or you didn't accept my love. Because I was sure that if you did, then you couldn't be influenced by the curse anymore. Now I know better and you know what? It feels liberating. There's nothing like a proper reality check.'
And that was true. She promised herself to reign her own impulsiveness and jumping to conclusions. Not everything was her fault, but some things indeed were. She was, after all, prone to jumping to take responsibility from Rumple if only to have a feeling that she's doing something quickly, effectively and on her own. But when it proved to not be effective, shewas angry, disillusioned and hurt, both because of him and herself. At least some of it could have been avoidable.
'Perhaps we need to prepare some course of action that would be acceptable for both of us?' he suggested, sensing her thoughts.
'Not just acceptable. Desired. It's too difficult work to be just acceptable...'
'If so, then are you ready to see me as someone who can be responsible for his actions?'
'About as much as you really, but I hope for some progress. Land without magic may actually help, because force balance is equal. Not only between you and me but between us and whoever would want to hurt us.
He nodded miserably, exhausted.
She smiled seeing him stifle a yawn.
'Alright, Rumple. It late. Or very early. Let's try to catch some sleep. We don't have to wake up early.'
And when he drifted off, wrapped in her arms, he felt truly safe for the first time since he remembered.