He wasn’t doing this because he cared. Indeed not. Nor because he was concerned. That would imply he cared. Which he didn’t. Certainly not. He was doing this because he loathed leaving jobs half finished. Let it never be said that Rumpelstiltskin lacked a sense of duty!
The fact was, he’d made a deal with Belle – her service in his castle, forever, in exchange for the safety of her village – and that deal was now broken. However much he wanted to blame the little lying viper for her deceit and trickery, he could not entirely fault her for falling victim to the Queen’s wiles. She was crafty, intelligent and powerful, and Belle was only a naïve girl.
Besides, when faced with the decision to give her loyalty to a beautiful queen or the hideous monster who’d enslaved her, how could he blame her for making the obvious choice?
Taking all these factors into account, and deciding to show how magnanimous he could be, Rumpelstiltskin decided not to lift his protective spells from Belle’s friends and family. He toyed with the idea of exacting another price, but no, the fools would probably repeat their idiotic offer of gold, or perhaps foist a truly unwilling woman on him, and that would not do. No, it was better to leave things as they were. Anything else required too much effort on his part.
And quite frankly, he was damned tired of the whole sorry business.
But all this meant a new deal technically had to be struck, even if it was a simple re-wording of the original contract. Otherwise, Belle’s return would no doubt send her silly father and his incompetent war council into hysterics, and they’d end up falling all over themselves trying to prepare for an ogre invasion that would never come. Oh, and they’d probably accuse Belle of breaking her bargain, and for some reason that irked him. HE had every right to blame her for her actions, but THEY should still be worshiping at her feet. No, a new deal would be made, and she could wave the parchment in her father’s face and assure her people they were still safe. It was the only way he could finally put this whole thing behind him. Plus, he was sure to get at least some satisfaction in demonstrating his generosity in the face of her betrayal!
And that, you must understand, was the only reason he was reaching for his magic mirror, which would allow him to discover her current location. There was no other reason. None at all.
The hand mirror was simple and unadorned, with a small round glass fitted into a plain golden frame and long handle. He starred into his own reflection for a moment, long enough to remind himself that looks were nothing compared to power, then ordered sharply, “Find Belle.”
The mirror clouded briefly with a dense silver fog, then cleared, and suddenly, before he was truly ready, there she was.
She sat alone at a wooden table, the plain décor and rowdy background noise clearly marking a common tavern. She leaned slightly forward over the table, her head bowed and her hand clutching a large stein of what appeared to be ale. Rumpelstiltskin felt his chest tighten – with anger, of course, and frustration, not with anything like pain or remorse – and he couldn’t help but stare for just a moment.
He’d heard, of course, of the young princess widely hailed as the fairest in the land. Hair as black as the raven’s wing, skin as white as snow and smooth as porcelain, and lips as red as blood. Such beauty was almost painful to behold, the people claimed, this young child, the nemesis of the Queen. But what was hair of ink to cascading curls of rich brown? What was ivory skin next to sun-kissed cheeks? And who would care what shade of red a pair of lips possessed when they were pressed against his so sweetly…?
NO! Rumpelstiltskin shook his head vehemently, jerking himself out of the memory. She was nothing to him, not anymore. He had a deal to complete and that was all. Then he’d never think on her again. Never.
Gathering his power, he began to de-materialize and transport himself to the tavern, when suddenly he saw her raise her head and begin speaking.
“It’s not in his head, it’s in his heart,” she proclaimed, her musical voice directed toward someone out of the mirror’s range. He felt that strange pang in his chest again, assuming it was simply in reaction to listening to the words of a lying viper. But if that was the case, why could he not look away from the sadness in her eyes?
“You’re in love,” she continued, her voice soft but filled with conviction. “Trust me. I know love…and you’re in it.”
I know love…? What was the little witch-in-training going on about now? And why did she look so unhappy at the thought of being in love?
A dwarf suddenly appeared in the mirror, pushing his chair closer to Belle’s table as he eagerly asked for more information. “What’s it like?” he demanded.
Belle’s lips curled into a smile, though the sadness never left her eyes. “It’s the most wonderful and amazing thing in the world,” she told him passionately. “Love is hope. It fuels our dreams. And if you’re in it, you need to enjoy it…” and here her voice altered, and she lowered her eyes, “…because love doesn’t always last forever.”
Rumpelstiltskin wanted to rage. He wanted to hear glass shatter and wood splinter. He wanted to slam the mirror down on the table and crack her beautiful, perfect, lying face into a million pieces. He wanted to banish her sweet voice from his mind so it could whisper no more falsehoods into his ear.
Because she was lying. She was! The Queen turned her against him. It was all a trick, all an illusion.
But…why was she continuing her charade with this dwarf? He was rambling on about some silly little fairy and a bunch of fireflies, but Belle was still listening intently, urging him to be with the person he loved, to look beyond her words and see the meaning behind them. Why did she need to pretend with him? Why…unless?
“I’ve had my heart broken enough to know when somebody is reaching out,” she whispered, and he heard her voice crack ever so slightly.
And with a howl of rage he gave into his instincts and tossed the mirror across the room, letting it clang loudly against the wall and fall limply to the floor.
She had HER heard broken? SHE knew love? She knew NOTHING! She was a cunning, deceitful, easily manipulated child who tried to play the hero when she couldn’t even save herself, and she had the NERVE to claim she understood the pain of true love?
~Love is layered. Love is a mystery to be uncovered.~
~I could never give my heart to one as superficial as he.~
~You just can’t believe someone could love you.~
He closed his eyes, willing himself to forget.
~You’re a coward, Rumpelstiltskin.~
No. Not anymore. The coward was gone. He was powerful now. He was the Dark One. He could do anything. Anything!
~You need to be with the person you love.~
Could he? Dared he? Was it even remotely worth the risk?
~It’s forever, dearie!~
Damn her. Damn him. He’d never broken a contract before. He wasn’t going to start now.
Without another thought, he vanished.
Belle allowed herself a brief smile as the dwarf practically bounced out of the tavern, no doubt on his way to meet his lovely lady on the hilltop. They’d be happy together, she knew, at least if left to their own devices. She knew dwarves weren’t supposed to love, but so what? His heart was so big, his emotions so pure, she couldn’t doubt it.
Even if she’d never be happy again, at least she could help others along their path. It was something, at least.
Sighing, she drained the last of her heavily-watered ale, and was about to push herself up from the bench when a dark-haired man with a pitcher suddenly appeared at her elbow.
“Will you be needing a refill, missy?” he asked, his voice heavy with an accent she couldn’t place.
“Oh, no thank you,” she replied, looking up with a reluctant smile. “I’m pretty sure I’ve had all I can handle for one day.”
“Tryin’ to drown our sorrows?” he asked sagely, propping his hip against the table and leaning forward slightly. “Want to forget something? Don’t worry, we barkeeps have heard it all before. Your tale can’t be worse than any other.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” Belle agreed, some of her good humor returning in the face of his ease and friendliness. “But no, I’m afraid no amount of any drink could ever make me forget what happened to me.” Her eyes hardened slightly. “And I wouldn’t want to, either. No matter what the pain, it was still the best experience of my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.” Her voice turned vaguely wistful. “I just wish it could have turned out differently, you know? That he could have believed me when I…” She shook her head. “Well, no matter. What’s done is done, I suppose.”
The man frowned down at her. “Don’t be telling me someone mistreated you! No woman deserves that, not from friend or foe.”
“Oh no, he’d never hurt me!” Belle hastened to assure him. “Well, not physically. I mean, he DID toss me in a dungeon twice, but I’m fairly certain the first time was for shock value and the second was…well, he was quite angry, you see, and I think I was probably safer there than anywhere else.” Her mind briefly flashed back to the shattered remains of the Great Hall, and she shivered slightly. Yes, she was grateful not to have witnessed the full extent of his temper.
“Have a fight, did you?” The man looked down at her closely. “Something important, I reckon?”
Belle’s hand tightened on the handle of her mug. “I…did something I shouldn’t have,” she admitted softly. “I took a very important choice into my own hands, without consulting him. I thought I was doing the right thing, and I did it with the best of intentions, but…” She took a deep breath. Admitting this to herself had been hard enough, and saying it aloud was even worse. “But right or not, good intentions or not, I shouldn’t have done it without his consent. I shouldn’t have listened to someone else, someone outside our relationship, someone I didn’t even know!” The frustration in her voice was evident. “I loved him perfectly just as he was, and yet I still tried to change him. I was wrong, and I don’t blame him for thinking the worst of me.”
The man was silent for a long moment, and Belle couldn’t bring herself to meet his eyes. Finally, in what was very obviously a forced, even voice, he said, “It sounds as though you did make a mistake there, but it seems to me he might have listened to you more before…rejecting you.”
Belle gave a sharp laugh. “Oh, believe me, that’s a definite truth.” Her voice hardened. “He had no right to toss me out, to lie that his vaunted magic meant more to me than him. Even if what I did was wrong, it was still True Love, and he had the proof right in front of him. He should have explained things to me, he should have at least TRIED to be reasonable, instead of losing his temper and pushing me away. I called him a coward and I meant it. I still do.” She worried her lip between her teeth. “But it’s been so long since he knew love – real, true love – and I can’t entirely fault him for believing no one would ever have those feelings for him.”
“Mmmm.” The man’s piercing eyes sought hers once again. “Sounds like you were both at fault, then.”
“As is so often the case, yes,” she agreed with a sigh.
“But even after all that, you still love him?” His voice was mildly disinterested.
“Absolutely.” She placed her chin in her hands. “Love is worth nothing if it isn’t fought for, after all. If it was easy, everyone would have it, and then it wouldn’t be special.” She shook her head. “Loving during the good times is easy. It loving when things are dark and hopeless that takes…” she flicked her eyes up to his, “…courage.”
A slight twitch of the eyes was all the emotion he allowed to show. “And…if given the chance, of course…would you be willing to admit to your side of the blame and try to work things out?”
“If he did the same?” Belle locked eyes with him. “In a heartbeat.”
“Well then.” The man shrugged. “Why don’t you just go back and try to set things right?”
Belle lifted her chin, every inch the high-born lady despite her common dress and dirty surroundings. “Because he banished me. He told me he didn’t want me anymore. He called me a liar and told me to shut the hell up. I still love him, great fool that he is, but I will NOT beg to be taken back. That is where I draw my line. HE must come to ME.”
The man starred at her, almost in shock at her sudden vehemence, but after a moment, he nodded slowly.
“I can’t blame you for that, love. Not one bit.”
Belle held his eyes, and a small smile touched her lips. “Thank you,” she whispered.
And the man inclined his head, wished her a safe journey, and walked back toward the bar. Belle waited for a few moments, then turned her head.
As expected, he’d vanished.
Belle waited another fifteen minutes or so, gazing around the tavern and pretending to people-watch, and then, when she judged it long enough, she stood, grasped her cloak, and exited the tavern. She was headed in the general direction of her village, though she was certainly taking the scenic route back. When she’d stormed out of the castle, she’d found her cloak pockets filled with gold, at least telling her he didn’t want her to starve or freeze to death. By eating simply and choosing cheaper inns with tiny rooms, she was able to make her coin last longer, and she was determined to use this opportunity to see as much of the world as she could. After all, it was probably the only taste of freedom she’d ever have.
Today, she angled her path toward the edge of a forest, away from the more common travel routes. Instinct told her she needed to be alone, as far from prying eyes as possible. It was the only way…
…ah yes. She smiled as a glimmer of mist appeared in front of her, halting her in her tacks.
It was the only way he’d come.
Sure enough, there was no one around, and they starred silently at one another for almost a full minute, the rustling of leaves blowing in the breeze the only sound. Belle held his eyes bravely, but inside she felt the smallest sliver of fear.
Had he finally believed her?
Rumpelstiltskin knew he had to speak first. She was nothing if not stubborn, and he had no doubt she could stay standing, silently, in the same attitude for days on end. But for the first time in his life, his quips and rhymes deserted him. He had nothing to hide behind, nothing to offer…nothing but himself.
And that, he knew, had never been enough in the past.
Finally, forcing a semblance of his usual wit, he said, “Well, coming from a tavern, are we? I had no idea you were so fond of drink! I’m surprised I didn’t see you pillaging my wine stores in the castle!”
Belle raised an eyebrow. “Is that really what you came to say?” she asked archly.
“Impertinent wench!” He rolled his eyes at her. “I come when I like, go where I like, and say what I like. You know that.”
“Yes,” she replied softly, giving him a knowing smile. “I do know that, indeed.”
“I came to offer you a return to our contract,” he continued, as though she hadn’t spoken. “I did say forever, after all, and it’s not in my nature to break deals. If this ever got out, my reputation would be utterly ruined!”
Belle took a step forward, eyeing him strangely. “Are you asking me back?”
He waved a hand dismissively. “I’m just fulfilling the terms of the contract, dearie. It was against the rules for me to have shut you out in the first place. I…shouldn’t have done it.”
She paced even closer toward him. “Because it was against the rules of the contract?” she specified.
“Yes, exactly.” Her proximity was making him ever so slightly jumpy. “So glad you understand.”
“And no other reason?” He could almost feel her breath on his face.
He steeled himself against the familiar pain in his chest. “Of course not. None whatever.”
Belle stopped right in front of him, her eyes locked with his and her lips so very close to his.
“Then I do not accept.”
Rumpelstiltskin took a step back at her sharp tone, and now her eyes were full of anger.
“I just told you I was wrong. I just told you I shouldn’t have tried to break the curse without your consent. And you agreed we were both at fault.” She crossed her arms. “I’m not too grand to say I’m sorry, Rumpelstiltskin. Now it’s your turn.”
His jaw dropped open, the first time in centuries he could ever remember feeling truly and honestly shocked. “WHAT did you say?”
“You heard me.” Her lips curled into a sardonic smile. “And when I said you had to come to me, you know I didn’t mean with some excuse about a contract. If you want me back, you can bloody well ask!”
“How in God’s name did you know it was me?” he demanded, reaching out to grasp her shoulders before he was even aware of the movement.
“Oh really.” Her smile softened ever so slightly. “If you think a simple glamour, a paltry change of face and hair and clothes, could hide your heart from me…you’re an even bigger fool than I thought.”
“Belle.” Her voice came out as a cracked whispered. “You really are a witch, aren’t you?”
“No.” She gazed deeply into his eyes. “I’m just the woman who loves you.”
“But…after all I did…all I said…”
“Yes, yes, and as I mentioned in the tavern, you’re a stupid idiot for all that, and I’m still quite mad at you for it.” Reaching up, she brushed a lock of his hair away from his forehead, her fingers lingering against his skin. “But none of that changes the fact that I love you, and that I want to be with you…if you’d only be willing to try. Remember, it’s loving during the dark times that makes it real, that takes the most courage. Just believe in us. Believe in me. ” She cocked her head to one side. “And, of course, I expect you to give me a profuse and heartfelt apology for calling me a liar, locking me in your dungeon, and then exiling me from the castle. But other than that…”
“But I’m a BEAST! Isn’t that why you wanted to change me?”
Grasping his face between her hands, she snapped, “No! It was because I was foolish and naïve and believed a lying snake. You were right, I did want to be a hero. I wanted to prove my love and turn you back into the man you were. But that was a mistake. Why in the world should I have wanted to turn you into someone else when I fell in love with you?”
Rumpelstiltskin almost didn’t believe his eyes. “She really didn’t bewitch you, did she?” he realized, finally hearing the truth in her words when he couldn’t before. “You truly do…love me…don’t you?”
“Yes, you wool-headed ninny, I do! With all my heart! And you love me!” She caressed his cheek. “Why else would you have hated me so well when you thought I betrayed you?”
And that was when the truth slammed into him like a brick wall.
He had hated her. He’d loathed her. He’d never felt such intense emotion, not even toward his most bitter enemy. If he’d cared nothing for her, her actions would never have touched him so deeply. Only love could cause so much hate. And if it were all true…if she loved him, as he was, with all his darkness…
“I really am the worst kind of fool, aren’t I?”
And then she was in his arms and he was holding her tightly, cradling the back of her head against his chest. Apologies spilled from his lips, vows of recompense, promises of red roses and golden chains to make up for his idiocy, and laughingly she pushed away and shook her head.
“All I want is you,” she whispered. “As long as you love me, I just need you.”
“Then have me,” he growled, tightening his hold. “I promised forever, dearie, and it’s forever you’ll have. You’ll never be rid of me, no matter how far you run! You’re mine now. Mine forever.”
Belle sighed against his chest, her warmth permeating deep into the heart he thought he’d lost long ago. “And you’re mine, Rumpelstiltskin. Mine forever. And longer, if I can help it.”
And he who swore never to be ruled by anyone again, he who gave up what he loved most for power and pride, allowed her claim, allowed her lips to brand his cheek with her mark, and vowed to spend the rest of his life giving her the happy ending she deserved.
She was right. Forever might not be quite long enough. He made a mental note to do something about that. Later.