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Ship in a Bottle

By Ellie

Romance / Drama

Chapter 1

Ship in a Bottle

When asked what exactly it is that she likes about Rumplestiltskin, Milah the farmer's daughter would be hard-pressed to come up with an answer right away. It's just something that she feels when she is in his company, something that she can't quite define, but that make her feel like she is where she belongs. That of course is too vague an answer for her father, who has no trouble at all coming up with a long list of reasons why it would be very unwise to tie herself to Rumple for life.

'I won't let you marry that man until you can tell me why you want to.' That's what her father has told her.

Which is fine by her; Milah has never been one to back down from a challenge of any kind. So she has retreated to her bed, but not to sleep. Instead she has folded her hands under her head, staring up at the ceiling. She's far too pleased that Rumple has finally plucked up the courage to ask her father for her hand. So if it is reasons that are required of her, then reasons she shall give.

'I'll let you know by morning,' she's informed her father, shooting a freezing glare at her brother in the process, who had the gall to snicker at the idea of his baby sister marrying the fatherless spinner from the village. He doesn't know Rumple like she does and until he does, he should keep his opinions – and his mocking – to himself.

But she is never going to be allowed to get close to him again unless she completes her own task before dawn, which brings her back to her own mission. Rumple has completed his by asking for her hand, and it is her part to play to ensure her father's cooperation.

It's thinking like that that actually gets her anywhere. And so Milah casts her mind back to the first time she met the man she hopes to call her husband before Midsummer, the first time she properly met him, because she has sort of known him for ages, so long that she can't really remember a time when Rumple didn't live in this village. And theirs is a small village. Everyone knows everyone. It's the way things are.

So yes, she has known him for years, but she never took any notice of him until about two years ago. It was summer and she had gone to the well to fetch some water. On the way back she had tripped over… well, she can't recall what exactly she tripped over to begin with, but tripping she did. And as she did, she let the bucket fall, sending the contents all over a startled Rumplestiltskin.

'Oh, I am so sorry!' she had started apologising, feeling the most clumsy girl in all the known realms. She would have done that regardless of who her victim was, Milah knows.

'It… it doesn't matter,' Rumplestiltskin apologised, even though she was quite sure that it did matter; he was soaked and so was the wool he was carrying.

And his reaction took her by surprise; most people would have snapped at her, told her to watch where she was going. And they certainly wouldn't have had that shy smile or that adorable not-quite-stammer. None of those nameless other people would have gone as far as Rumple went by also bending down to retrieve her bucket for her, that far too adorable smile still on his face.

'Thank you,' she remembers saying. She had been smiling like an idiot, not the wisest thing to do when just having soaked the person opposite her. 'Do you need help with that?' she added, eyeing the wool, hoping to every deity in existence that she hasn't ruined something very important. Milah may be a farmer's daughter, but wool is not her area of expertise.

Rumple was quick to decline her kind offer. 'There's no need.'

But Milah had never been one to back off. And she had just dropped a bucket full of water over him. Unintentionally of course, but she had done it all the same. The least she could do was to make it up to him.

'Well, my bucket is empty,' she pointed out. 'I might as well put it to good use.' Without waiting for the reply, she took the wool from him and deposited it in the bucket.

It might have been the end of the story if he had actually let her carry his load home for him. Instead he took the bucket, carried it, left the wool at his home and then fetched her water, which he would have carried home for her if the spinsters he lived with hadn't called him back in to finish some order or other that really couldn't wait.

Rumple is nothing like the other men Milah knows.

And maybe that is where her answer lies, she realises, smiling in the darkness.

When morning comes, she marches to her father, ready to list the things she memorised during the nightly hours. 'Rumple is gentle,' she says. 'He works hard. He doesn't get drunk. He isn't violent.'

He is, in short, everything that other men are not. Rumple is safe. And that is exactly what Milah wants. There are more than enough dangers in the world without the people adding to it, and danger is not what she is looking for in a relationship.

Of course that doesn't mean that her life is easier as soon as she marries Rumplestiltskin. The bliss of being newlyweds fades soon enough when there is work to be done. But such is the way of life. And Milah is the daughter of a farmer; she has never known any different. She can spin well enough, but not as well as Rumple, so he takes care to ensure that they are provided for. Milah in turn makes sure that the cottage they live in remains liveable. She cooks, she cleans, she mends. The latter doesn't come easily to her, but Rumple is teaching her and she gets better.

Her life is mundane and predictable. But that is what she wanted, and she doesn't regret it. Rumple makes for a good husband, a better one than many of her friends claim to have. He doesn't run off to drink his money away in the tavern, he shares her bed and no one else's and he loves her enough to show her these thoughtful kindnesses. It's what Milah likes best about him. Some days he brings her breakfast in bed when she doesn't feel like rising yet, just so she can delay the inevitable a little longer. Sometimes, when there is some coin to spare, he buys her trinkets he knows she'll like. Other days, there's wildflowers in the clay vase on the table.

So what does she care for the rumours that are going around about him? It is hardly his fault that his father ran off and left him, is it? He can't help it, so Milah snaps witty retorts at the gossipers in the market place and drives a hard enough bargain for her purchases that her neighbours don't have time to talk. They need all their wits about them for dealing with her.

But it is obviously bothering her husband. He cares about what people are saying about him. It's like he is desperate to go out there and prove those gossipers wrong. And Milah dislikes the thought of that. She married Rumple because he was safe, because he didn't feel the need to show off just how brave he was.

And that is something she has never doubted. Rumple isn't brave the way other men are, those other men who swing a sword around and think that makes them brave. Milah rather thinks it makes them stupid. She's seen their ilk many times, young soldiers marching through their village on their way to the front, all thinking that they would be the ones to put an end to the Ogre's War with one hand tied behind their back. Milah thinks them foolish for courting danger like that, and she is never surprised when they do not return. Only the wounded come back from the field of battle after all, and fools are the first to die.

Strange how such a war can be ongoing and yet it does not affect their lives. Well, she reckons it does affect them in some way, because she hears the news from the front like everyone else and she sees the soldiers march to war, but the front itself is far away in some place that she doesn't even know the name of and where she will likely never set foot. Nor does she have any wish to. Milah finds that she is oddly content with her life. And as her friends start marrying and having families of their own, she realises that is what she wants as well. And clearly, so does Rumple.

Until the day that her life changes. Milah doesn't understand Rumple's enthusiasm and clearly doesn't see why that piece of parchment he's dangling in front of her face could be the cause of such joy. Drafted in for the Ogre's War? What are they thinking? But Rumple is talking about stepping out of his father's shadow, acting like this is what he has waited for.

And Milah finds that she may have underestimated the depth of this particular sentiment. She always assumed that, like her, Rumplestiltskin could not care what the people thought. He went out and faced them day after day, never commenting on their words. Only now that he is talking about proving to the rest of the world that he is not a coward does it dawn on her that she has not been paying enough attention.

She supposes she should be glad that he doesn't think she ever mistook his gentleness for cowardice, but Milah is not in the mood for positive thoughts like that. All of a sudden her mind is far too eager to recall every piece of news she has ever heard about the front, and it never is good news. Brutal, harsh, deadly. Those are the words that spring to mind. And such a place is not a place for her kind husband. Does he even know how to fight, how to wield a sword? He'll be like a sheep among wolves there. She'll lose him and then what will become of her?

The terror is bubbling in her chest, making it hard to breathe, because her life suddenly seems to have been built on shifting sands, and everything she holds dear is becoming uncertain. Milah hates that.

But what choice does she have? One does not refuse a summons like this, not if you want to live. And so she tells him to be brave and fight with honour.

It's the right thing to say. His face lights up and he tells her that he loves her.

'I love you too,' Milah hears herself saying, knowing that she means it. And it is that love that makes this all so terrifying; love makes the prospect of loss look so much more painful. But she has decided to put on a brave face now, so she won't back down. That has never been her thing anyway. She soldiers on. 'And when you return, we can start living the life we've always dreamed of. We can have a family.' And you'd better come back, Rumple. Don't you dare die.

Rumple speaks those last words with her. The look in his eyes softens and that smile appears, the smile Milah first fell for when she dropped the bucket over him. And she is done for. She loves this man and the life they're having together. It isn't the life of a king, but she doesn't want that anyway. With Rumple, she is content.

And now she is about to lose it all.

He makes love to her that night, the last night before he leaves, and Milah can't deny that she hopes it will result in a pregnancy. It would give her something to remember him by, and she means to tell him that, but the words die on her lips when she sees the joy in his eyes, the newfound confidence that has never been a part of Rumplestiltskin before. In his head there is no room for thoughts of death and destruction. To him, this is the start of a new life, a better life.

So she bites her tongue and reveals nothing of her own fears as she bids him farewell in the pale morning light.

Still, he must have seen something in her eyes, because he takes her hands, as if to reassure her. 'I can do this, Milah,' he tells her. 'You will see. We will have a family.'

Does he know what he is facing there? Surely he must; he's heard all the things she has. Does he simply choose not to see it? Milah dismisses that thought the moment it enters her head. No, Rumple has endured all the gossip here, and he has never shied away from that. He would not try to deny what was so considered common knowledge.

'I know,' she tells him, keeping her real thoughts to herself. That is not what he needs from her. 'I love you.' That at least is the truth. 'Come back to me.' She means that as well.

And there is her favourite smile again. 'I will,' he promises.

But he won't be back for quite some time, and Milah knows this. The front is far away. To get there would take weeks, so she knows that if there is any news, if he will have time to send her some, it will be weeks, if not months, in coming.

Her own news comes sooner. Maybe some god out there was actually listening to her when she prayed for a child that night before Rumple left, because there is new life growing in her womb. At first she hardly dares to believe that it could be true, that she really has been that fortunate, but all the signs are there. Still, it is only when her neighbours start to comment on her condition that she really can accept it for the truth that it is. If Rumple comes home, they will be a family.

'It can't be easy,' one of her neighbours remarks one day as they fetch water from the well. It's Wilma, a slightly older woman with three children and a husband recently returned home from the war, too injured to fight. Not that you'd know he was injured from the way he holds himself. True, he's killed an ogre, but he also lost one of his legs in the attempt. This does not give him the right to behave as if he's the king and Wilma, by extension, to act as queen.

'What's that?' she asks, not looking up to acknowledge the other woman's presence. Wilma's tongue must surely be cursed by a dark fairy at birth, because as long as Milah can remember, no kind word has ever crossed her lips. Pretend kindness, maybe, so she believes she can be forgiven for searching for the snake in the grass.

'Having to raise a child all by yourself.' Wilma either doesn't recognise the signs that Milah does not wish for her company or she ignores them.

'Rumple may yet come home from the war.' There is absolutely no way she will share her fears with this woman. If she does, then everybody will know of them by nightfall, and she will not give them the satisfaction of letting them know that she doubts Rumplestiltskin in any way. They do enough doubting for the entire village already. 'Your husband did.'

'With honour,' Wilma agrees, puffing her chest in pride.

As if you'd ever let any of us forget it, Milah thinks venomously. 'Is there a point to this?' she asks.

'I just mean to say that you should not get your hopes up, dear.' The would-be motherly pat on the shoulder gives Milah the urge to bat the hand away, forcefully. 'Rumplestiltskin may return home, true enough. But well, some men return with honour. Some don't.'

Milah is known for her quick wits; the message is clear enough. 'Rumple is not a coward,' she snaps, unable to hold it back. She believes that with all her heart.

'Your faith in him is touching,' Wilma says, false smile plastered all over her face. 'I hope you'll be proven right.'

You hope for that as much as I hope for your husband to magically regrow his leg. She picks up the pail and marches back to her cottage without wasting another word on the woman. Were it that her words were as easily discarded.

Milah absolutely hates how Wilma's words work their way underneath her skin, ever more so the longer she hears nothing from Rumple. Her pregnancy is progressing well, and business is not bad either, but she misses her husband. Surely he'd be delighted if only he knew that they are about to have a child.

She still loves the idea of a family, still wants Rumple's parting gift so badly it hurts at times, but now her gladness is mingled with doubts and fears.

What if Rumple has died? Some widows never even get the news.

What if I cannot support the child on my own?

What if Rumple is taken prisoner?

What if he is injured?

What would become of us if he can't work anymore?

And then, the worst one: What if Wilma is right?

All those fears and more creep up on her during the nightly hours, when she finds sleep a stranger and all those things she refuses to think of during the day demand her undivided attention. She doesn't want to think any of it, but she also knows that no war is without risk, and Rumple in a battle would be as much out of place as a fish in a sand desert. Sheep among hungry wolves. He was not born to fight. Her gentle husband, what chance does he have?

None at all.

It's a harsh thought and one Milah does not want to acknowledge, but she is nothing if not practical and it is not like her to try and hide from the truth. Of course, stranger things have been done in the name of love, but not by her. Maybe it is time that she starts to accept that she had seen the last of him that morning they said farewell. Even if she is not a widow yet, she may be one soon enough.

The thought all but cripples her.

Come back to me, she had commanded him, and Milah has not forgotten his promise to indeed return. But it is something he could never have promised her with absolute certainty; wars don't care about promises and Milah won't be the first wife to be made a promise of return, only to have her husband returned to her in a coffin, if there was even that much left of him to bury. And she doubts she will be the last.

The birth of her child is expected within the next couple of days away when everything changes. She really should not be out as much as she is, but Milah reckons she has to get her food from somewhere, and it's not like she'll ask the infernal Wilma woman or one of her cronies to do it for her. Either way, they'll end up paying too much for it; she knows herself well enough to be certain she always gets the better bargain.

But something is different today. She can almost taste the change in atmosphere the moment she sets foot in the market place. People are staring, and for the life of her, Milah cannot tell why.

'It's a miracle she even dares to show her face.' It's no more than a whisper and Milah is unable to pinpoint just who may have said it, but she dislikes the sound of it. There is no question that she is the she that is mentioned; conversations fall quiet when she passes.

'If I were her, I'd never leave the house again.' It's a woman's voice, filling the silence that has fallen just as she passes another stall, the one where she usually buys her bread.

'Maybe she hasn't been told yet,' another woman suggests. This time Milah sees the speaker, a young woman, almost a girl still, by the name of Mary.

'Haven't been told what exactly?' she demands, drawing herself up to her full height to look a bit more impressive. The baby bump undermines her attempt severely, but Mary still staggers back when she catches sight of the woman she had just been gossiping about.

'Milah!' The forced enthusiasm in her voice makes her greeting sound more like a yelp than anything else. 'I didn't see you there.'

That much is obvious or you wouldn't be talking like that. 'Haven't been told what, Mary?' she repeats.

It's Wilma – because of course that woman is right at the heart of the gossip and why has Milah been expecting any different? – who takes it upon herself to answer with barely concealed glee. 'It seems you were right about your husband, dear. He is coming home.'

Rumple is coming home? For half a moment Milah's heart feels that much lighter, but the joy vaporises when she realises that she has been the subject of malicious talk just now. Rumple's homecoming would have been a cause for celebration, if not for the village, then for her at least. It would not justify this.

'Then why should I hide in my house?' she questions, head held high. She won't cower away. It's not what she does.

Wilma turns on the smile, the variety that is so false that Milah can see right through it in under a second. 'Because I was right too. Some men return with honour, others don't.'

This time it does take a few seconds for the message to sink in, but then it is like she has been punched in the gut and slapped across the face. No, Rumple is not a coward, she knows him better than that. But Wilma's words are raining down on her and Milah listens, barely comprehending what she is being told. Rumours all concur, injured himself to escape battle, too frightened to fight like a man, crippled for life, coward, coward, coward.

She swallows. She won't believe this. If she does not believe in her husband, then who will? Certainly not these people, who have been doubting him for as long as they have known him. 'You are saying all this is based on rumours?' she snarls. 'Would that be the same kind of rumour that claimed that the ogres were using tree trunks as swords and mountain tops for shields?' And she remembers how the official messenger had roared with laughter when asked the truth about that tale. Rumours from the front travel quick, but are often as not completely unreliable. And she'll be damned if she believes as much as a single word of it.

The market place falls blessedly silent, and Milah is on the verge of feeling some measure of relief when she experiences that feeling of being punched in the gut again. Her baby is coming.

She births her son in blood and agony, surrounded by a bunch of women who have been insulting her this very afternoon. And now she is to place her own wellbeing and that of her child in their hands. Milah wants to scream at them to get out of her house, but she is also practical enough to know that she cannot do this on her own, and so she reluctantly tolerates their presence for as long as she has a need of them.

Their usefulness runs out though the moment she has the child in her arms, a beautiful baby boy she names Baelfire. Within seconds this tiny little human has captured her heart in a way that not even his father had ever quite managed. He is hers and he is beautiful.

Your father will be here soon, she wants to tell him, but she daren't, not with all those old "well-meaning" hags still under her roof. Rumplestiltskin will have been injured in the war, she never questions that, but it will have happened in battle. Injuring himself? Who would even think of such a thing?

'If there is anything you need, don't hesitate to ask,' Wilma says. 'I know how taxing those first days can be, especially when you're alone.'

'I'm asking you to leave,' Milah replies pointedly. Get out of my house and take your talk with you.

'We know Rumplestiltskin's cowardice cannot be blamed on you,' Wilma reassures her.

Milah knows a falsehood when she hears one.

'I asked you to leave,' she repeats.

To her credit Wilma thinks it wiser not to argue with her. She departs the cottage with one of those smiles – Milah personally thinks that smirk would be the more accurate word for what she does – and leaves her neighbour to her son.

Baelfire has fallen asleep at her breast, a tiny human being completely reliable on her. 'Your father is no coward,' she tells him. 'Don't let them tell you any different.'

Her resolve doesn't waver in the days that follow, days that are both heaven and hell to Milah in equal measure. She has a child to call her own and the prospect that Rumplestiltskin is coming home warms her heart more than she would care to admit.

At the same time the villagers have talked about little else than Rumple's presumed cowardice. And Milah cannot ignore their words as much as she'd like. She tells them off for it, loudly and repeatedly, but they persist, even looking at her with pity for what they – behind her back and just not out of earshot – call her naivety. Their words echo in Milah's mind at night and will not be persuaded to leave her alone.

The worst part – and she almost hates herself for even thinking it – is that their words make some sense, and she does not want them to. Because how can she deny that Rumple is not a fighter? Even as a child he could never be seen fighting with sticks along with the other boys. He barely had any muscle to speak of and no desire to fight. Rumple was and is a gentle soul. That was why she had married him in the first place. But how well would someone like that fare when faced with the horrors of battle? Sheep among wolves. Would he have run like everyone in this village seems to think he did or would he have found some unexpected strength in himself? The longer the days drag on, the more talk she hears, the more likely the former starts to sound.

The days become weeks and there is still no sign of Rumplestiltskin. Milah has half convinced herself that all the rumours were false and that he is still with the army when late one night she hears her name called out in that well-known voice. Milah is rocking Baelfire to sleep in her arms. He's here. He's home. A small voice in her head cheers that now she can prove all those doubters wrong.

She turns around when the door opens to see her husband, and he looks terrible. He's still dressed in the clothes the army provides their soldiers with, which, admittedly, is of better quality than the garb they normally wear in this village. Other than that, Rumple is a mess. He looks like he missed out on sleep for days and there is a gleam in his eyes that doesn't quite strike her as mad, but not as entirely sane either. From there her eyes go from the walking stick to the patchy job they did of fixing his right foot. The foot? That didn't sound like a likely place to get hurt in a battle. She's heard of limps being severed, injuries in the chest or on the head, cuts and bruises all over the body. But the foot? How…?

Unless Wilma was right.

She stops at that. No. No, she does not want to believe that. But it is testimony to just how deep her neighbours' words have gotten under her skin that she does not have too much trouble jumping to that particular conclusion. And her mental it isn't true now starts to sound more like please, don't let it be true, a desperate wish rather than a certainty.

Rumple points at the baby in her arms. 'What's his name?' No greeting, no words of affection and love, no smiling reminder that he came home like he promised.

She answers him all the same. 'Baelfire.' She's unable to stop smiling when talking about her son. He is quiet in her arms, sleeping peacefully now.

Milah knows something is wrong though when Rumple declares it a good and strong name with too much fervour. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Rumplestiltskin is not one for raising his voice under any circumstance. Her eyes seek out his. They are almost feverish. Might be because of his injury, something she can't quite ignore when he all but collapses and drags himself to the nearest chair.

All her attention is drawn back to it now. The foot. How does one get injured in the foot like that? From what she can see, and admittedly she can't see very much from where she's standing, it looks like it has been smashed. Are ogres in the habit to smash the feet of their opponents? Injured himself to escape battle, Wilma had said.

Please tell me you didn't.

'Something he'll need, if he is to live with the shame of being your son.' The words spill out of her mouth unchecked. She is startled by them herself, but she does not feel like taking them back. How else could that injury be explained?

Please tell me you didn't.

Rumple's 'What are you talking about?' seems to imply that he really doesn't know and maybe that means that he hasn't done what she, against her will, starts to suspect.

But Milah needs to know for certain. 'Rumple, is it true?' Four words have never been harder to say, even more so because she is no longer certain she wants to hear the answer.

Please tell me you didn't. Those words are becoming a mantra that is going round and round in her head, as if she can make him answer as she wants to if only she wishes for it hard enough.

Rumple's face is twisted in a grimace of pain, and he can't seem to catch his breath. 'Is what true?' Confusion is written all over his face.

Clearly she'll have to speak plainer. 'Did you injure yourself?' These four words are even harder. Part of her hates herself for even contemplating it, but even she cannot argue with the evidence of her own eyes. Milah is a practical woman, not the kind at all to hide from the truth, ugly though it may be.

There is something in his eyes, a flash of alarm, panic maybe. It is gone again before she can determine what it was. God, no.

'So that you wouldn't have to fight, so that you would be sent home?' she urges when no verbal reply is forthcoming.

He demands to know who told her that and that reply is just wrong on so many levels. Rumplestiltskin never demanded anything. But he's defensive now, as if he expects trouble. It is not the righteous indignity Milah has been hoping for.

Please tell me you didn't. But the phrase is meaningless now. She knows something is not the way it should be. War changes people, some are changed beyond recognition. In some it brings out the best, in some the worst. All of a sudden Milah is quite certain in which category Rumplestiltskin belongs.

'Everyone,' she says. 'Rumours travel quickly from the front.' And apparently some of them are true. But he still hasn't given her a straight answer and so she asks her first question again, more forcefully this time, willing him to give answer. She finds she's almost screaming now, and she's woken Baelfire, who begins to fuss in her arms. But this time not even her son is enough to distract her and to cool her temper.

And he does answer. But not in the way she hoped for. 'Yes.'

And just like that, her whole world collapses. He did it. The people were right about him all along. It's like being punched in the gut all over again.

After all that I've defended you, you do this! It's hard to breathe, it's hard to think. Milah's mind is still reeling. How could you? How could you? It's the one question in her mind.

'A seer told me I was going to die in the battle,' Rumple explains.

That's it, the final straw. 'You did this because a seer told you to do it?' Incredulity is probably all too obvious in her voice, as is the contempt she feels. Since when does Rumplestiltskin hold with anything like that? Every child knows the stories about seers, that their prophecies are never to be taken at face value, that there's always some hidden meaning that can't be deciphered by mere mortals. And seers were never quite that plain in their words. And he had taken a seer's word for what was going to happen? How could you?

'She was right about everything else.' Rumple appears to be pleading with her, begging her to understand what he had done, but she can't. When he left, she had truly believed that he would not prove to be a coward. Her heart had been filled with dread for what she believed to be his impending demise, but that this was what would happen, she would have never dared to think.

She had asked him to come back home. Be careful what you wish for. It's one of those things that all parents tell their children. Be especially careful what you wish for when there are magical creatures around that could grant your wish. Milah doesn't know that a magical creature has anything to do with this situation, but her wish has surely come back to bite her. This is not how it was meant to be.

'I left the front to be with you, you and Baelfire!' Rumple is still at it, but his words of affection are too little and too late. Does he even know what he has done to them, to all of them? Everyone knows what he has done, and Milah and Baelfire will suffer by association. They are the family of the village coward. Rumple's father was a coward, Rumple is a coward and so it stands to reason that his son will be no different. Because that is how the people are going to look at them.

When Milah looks at the future, she only sees misery. What have you done?

'You left because you were afraid.' Some seer told him the future, struck him with fear and made him do whatever he could to avoid that fate. She knows Rumple – at least she thinks she does – and she can see how this must have played out. And after all those cautionary tales about seers, he still fell for their words. It makes her angrier than she has been in a very long time.

Does she even know this man? She remembers what she once told her father. Rumple is gentle. He works hard. He doesn't get drunk. He isn't violent. And all of that is still true for the man on the chair. But he is too gentle, too opposed to violence. All the makings of a coward. His qualities may be strengths in time of peace, but this is a time of war and he has effectively doomed them all by just being who he is. And, to her own shock, she hates him for that.

The anger goes into her words as she accuses him. 'You became what everyone thought you were: a coward! Just like your father!' She can see her words are hurting him, but she is too hurt herself to care about him. The anger rules supreme.

'I am nothing like my father!' Rumple is up on his feet, feverish gleam increasing in tenfold.

I beg to differ.

'He tried to abandon me. I will never ever do that to my son!' If anything, he seems to mean it.

It might have been better for him if you did. That is a harsh truth, but a truth all the same. In a fairer world, men might be applauded for wanting to be with their family, but this world isn't fair by any stretch of the imagination. In this world a man is expected to fight, to win the battle. And if that cannot be achieved, he'll have to be dead or severely injured in order to be sent home. Rumple is injured beyond a doubt, but not honourably, not in battle. Milah can hear Wilma's words echoing in her head. Some men return with honour, others don't.

She can only listen at his attempts to justify himself, claiming that he has done what he did for their son. All for the boy, indeed. The worst part of it is that she understands on some level. Rumple's childhood has not been easy. His father left him – that is common knowledge around here – and it has haunted him every day. It's understandable that he wants his own son to have his father around growing up.

But other than that, the situations are nothing alike. Rumple's father just left him because he felt like it. If Rumple had died in the war, Baelfire would be seen as the son of a war hero. And there are worse fates on this earth. But now Rumple has only ensured that he will be shunned all his life because of his father's crimes and how can he not see that? After all these years, does he still not know what life here is like? Has he always been this naïve?

'You sentence him to a fate much worse,' she says, dread trying to overtake her. What kind of life will Baelfire, will they, ever have here now? But her husband still can't see it, so she clarifies: 'Growing up as your son.'

'What else could I do?' Rumplestiltskin asks. There's genuine confusion on his face and from his tone it is clear that he thinks this a rhetorical question.

And maybe this is what she has been waiting for. Milah is furious. 'You could have fought, Rumple!' she snaps. 'You could have died!' She would have mourned him then, would have missed him. Right now, she honestly doesn't know what to do, what to think. Her life is built on shifting sands again, the very thing she thought she had avoided when she married him. Rumple is safe, after all. Now she only scoffs at her own foolishness.

'You don't mean that.' A plea for denial.

Don't I? Milah doesn't know. She doesn't know anything anymore and suddenly it's all too much. She needs to get out of here. She needs to get out of here right now. It's too much to even look at him, this man who is supposed to be her husband, but who she doesn't know anymore. She can't bear it.

You've doomed us. They won't die because of this. Instead, Rumple may have well condemned them to a fate worse than death and he can't even see it. She needs to get out of here; she can't breathe.

Here's the son you wanted, she means to say as she hands Baelfire to his cowardly father, but she doesn't trust her voice. Her eyes are burning, but she'll be damned before she lets him see her cry. Not here. And so she grabs the bucket next to the door under the pretence of fetching water from the well. The irony that it was a bucket of water that brought them together in the first place is not lost on her. Now she actually wants to drop water over his head in the hope that it will wake him up, will make him understand what he did.

Milah has no intention of actually going to the well. She just needs a place where she can be alone, away from prying eyes and judgemental minds. Rumple has made sure that she will have to endure those for the rest of her days, but she won't face them sooner than she has to. And she needs to be alone.

So instead of going to the well, she makes for the woods instead. There are generally no dangerous beasts this close to the village itself, so Milah is fairly certain that she won't be attacked. A small voice in her head comments bitterly that being eaten by wolves might be preferable over going back to that life that can't possibly hold any allure after tonight.

It's that thought that finally breaks her up. She sinks down onto the ground, throwing the bucket aside as she curls up and wraps her arms around her knees. The sobs shake her body, but Milah can't bring herself to care. She weeps, but for what exactly, she cannot say.

What am I going to do?

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