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Caretaker

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La Belle Dame Sans Merci, or just Belle for short, was a collector. Her thing was collecting talismans, totems, items with potential magical energy. Strong emotions attracted magic like metal filings to a magnet and magic, or rather the potential for magic, was what attracted Belle. Her enhanced senses could sniff out objects imbued with even the slightest hint of magical potential, usually things associated with important emotional moments in a person's life. If you knew how to sense them you could find such objects all over the Enchanted Forest and it was to her advantage that so few humans could see that what was magically valuable wasn’t necessarily valuable in the usual market value sense.

But wasn’t that your average human all over? Belle thought, always placing value on precisely the wrong things. How many of objects of greatest power in her collection were ones she never even had to strike a bargain for? A shocking number in fact, had been found in rubbish tips. As the Dark Sorceress, La Belle Dame Sans Merci was quite lucky she could enchant her nose not to smell some of the odors, or she would’ve spent a good deal of her object hunting hours being thoroughly sick, considering some of the places she found her curiosities in.

Even though she was immortal, she did possess senses other than the olfactory ones that could be sickened by some of the less salubrious locations she occasionally found herself in.

Still, despite the nature of this particular market day’s trading,the marketplace was a pleasant change. It was soothing in a way, to be surrounded by so much bustling movement, vitality and life after the silence of the Dark Castle.

Although Belle didn't need to eat, she was drawn to a cart selling savoury pastries, similar to the ones she'd had as a girl, hot and fresh enough to scorch a normal human’s fingers at a touch. Belle touched them and felt nothing.

Her gaze drifted to plump chickens and rabbits in wicker cages. There were colourful rugs knotted in intricate patterns, perfect to stare into on a winter's night beside a roaring fire. There were carved icons of gods and goddesses from a multiplicity of faiths and other peddlers shouting out the prices and merits of their wares accompanied by sellers of drums and mouth harps, lutes and other musical instruments demonstrating the full range of their instruments.

It was all so delightfully distracting. She often came to such places to draw herself off from her dark internal musings, the ruminations obsessions of the spirit that lurked within her, always on the look out for ways to sew mischief, always tilling back the soil of long buried resentments in her mind, ready to plant chaos in such fertile soil.

Not that disorder was always a bad thing. Too much order was never any fun. It clamped things down and closed off possibilities. Without a trickster to shake things up now and again, the world would be so boring. Now if only she could convince those blasted fairies of her own necessity to the natural balance of things, she might finally have some peace. All she really wanted, she tried to convince herself, was to be left alone.

Left alone… unbidden thoughts of what waited her in the palace, came back to her. She thought of her silent library then. Libraries were supposed to be quiet, of course, but in hers the only sound that could be heard was the soft whisper of spider legs as busy arachnids wove their webs, and her own soft footfalls on the floor, echoing like giant’s steps, on the cracked marble tiles of vast cavernous rooms, clouds of dust rising up in her wake wherever she trod. She could just see the few dust free areas where she was want to pace by the fire, just hear the tired floorboards creaking under her feet as she ascended the stair, but when she looked down all was straw beneath her feet and the dirt and dust of the market. It was a gloomy, grayish sort of day and lamps hung from poles around some stalls, giving off much needed warmth and light.

She had no need for lamps or lanterns, not anymore. In her true form even the mice scurried to hide from the large, lamp-like eyes that raked over the dark passages of the castle like twin search lights. In velvety darkness her scaley blue skin glowed, a thin rim of gold around each scale. The folk from nearby towns and villages called her home the Dark Castle, not only because of what once transpired within it, but for its present owner’s utter disregard for all sources of artificial illumination.

Rifling through second hand trinkets this otherwise unmemorable Frontlands village, Belle let the scent of desperation overwhelmed her, trying to pinpoint the magical source that had drawn her to this out of the way place. It clung to certain items on the table like sticky tar, still strong and distinctive even after several changes of ownership. To a regular person, the magic contained in such items would remain dormant, potential power untapped, but Belle, both because of what she was and what she had taught herself over the years, knew the secret to coaxing magical energy out of seemingly ordinary objects and more difficult still, how to control and command the magic once released.

Ignoring the pricier offerings of gold and jewels on the table Belle bargained with the peddler for a well-worn toy rabbit, a pair of red dancing shoes and a fake pearl necklace. All told her purchases were hardly worth the trouble of the trip, but she wasn’t ready to write it off yet. The slave auction had yet to start.

The man with the red woolen hat who styled himself a “a procurer of hard to find items” had tipped her off about this particular location. She'd been to it a few times already in different guises in the past month or so, without luck. Perhaps it was time to revisit Smee and take back the reward she'd given him, with a little extra payment for good measure. It wouldn’t do for anyone to think the Sorceress of the Dark Castle was going soft in her dotage now would it?

Chapter Text

Belle regarded the slaves with the large pupiled eyes--daemon fleur her busy mind supplied -- a herb slavers favoured that could be slipped into hot tea. It dissolved easily in warm liquid and in controlled doses it could confer on the user numbness to pain and lower the level of a fever. In higher doses it increased tractibility and surpressed defiance, but it wasn't cheap. Belle bet these poor souls only got to taste that particular nectar of oblivion pre-auction. It was a desperate trick, but she supposed with slaves in ill health it was either a drop or two of pricely daemon fleur or lose the value of the whole shipment altogether.

Despite it all, she let the slaver go about his ruse. She reminded herself that the usage of a banned drug on these poor unfortunates was not the reason she was here. Her purpose, she told herself firmly, was to find the glamour spell amulet. The cruelty of these mortals to one another was of no consequence to her greater objective. And yet…

She wished sometimes she could turn the darkness within her on or off at will; she could use some of the apathy it gave her now, its ability to take the long view, to regard these people around her as transient, their troubles momentary and insignificant. Typical, she thought, the one time she needed to cloak herself in the “merciless” attitude she was so famed for, the cursed spirit within her grew dormant. It was at times like these that felt every one of her 100 plus years weighing heavy on her heart. Though her exterior remained youthful and flawless, inside she felt weary, oh so very weary and older than the most aged crone in the marketplace.

She wondered what they’d say if she turned off her own glamour spell. When she exposed herself in all her scaled glory they would call her a witch, a succubus and agent of darkness among other less illustrious titles. Typical of the small minded, thinking evil to be some big showy thing involving magical curses and demonic appearances. While she did possess huge lamplike eyes that glowed in darkness, scaled skin, immortality and magic, as well as a castle gaurded by gargoyles that occasionally came to life and devoured intruders for breakfast; to her mind evil’s truer aspect was that found among ordinary people in prosaic surroundings like these. True evil didn’t announce itself with a loud bang and a puff of smoke. What made it truly wicked was that it was accepted, so much a part of the fabric of daily existence that people ceased seeing it as wrong, just shrugged if off and said “that’s the way of the world.”

You didn't need to search for a forbidding castle on a hill surrounded by stone monsters to look upon the face of evil. It was here in full force at the market the first Sunday of every month.

Belle tried to ignore the spectacle of mendacity presented by the villagers, who spent their money trying to outdo each other in buying delectable feasts and decorations for fictional dietities who could not appreciate them, while real people starved in chains right here in the town square just because somewhere along the line someone had categorized them as “slave.”

Somehow or other the free folk had managed to truly convince themselves that the people being sold were less than human and could be treated accordingly. Meanwhile, ironically la Belle Dame Sans Merci, the true inhuman, walked among them in noblewoman’s disguise, afforded every politeness and courtesy the villagers and traders could muster.

All this, it reminded Belle far too much of things she had no wish to remember. How could she have so much magic and yet still lack the power to forget her yesterdays. Why couldn’t she do something the tiniest, unschooled newborn infant did with every slumber? It would be so pleasing, so easy to torch this entire village to the ground, just so it would cease to remind her... No! It was best she go, before she attracted the wrong kind of attention.

But then a new group of slaves were brought out. Right away she knew there was something off about the three men and two women now standing in chains upon the stage. For one, they were in far too good condition to be sold in a backwater place like this, showing no signs of the hard travel and deprivation they ought to have. Even dressed in nothing more than strips of fabric that left little to the imagination, didn't even shiver in the cool autumn air. The men and women were all uniformingly young, clear eyed and free from sores, their teeth white and straight, the men well muscled, the women high breasted and strong. Most telling of all they all looked clean and well fed, cleaner and better fed in fact than the villagers milling around. It had been a lean growing season after all and the Duke had taken more than his usual share of the crop at tax time once again. Belle clicked her tongue at the slaver’s foolishness. Anyone with at least an iota of cleverness might have at least aimed for something a tad more believable.

 

Belle skirted the edge of the crowd until she was around the back of the stage following the scent of magic.

In the wings behind the stage, a middle aged man in a greasy apron sat staring into the empty brass bowl in his lap, bending his head low to whisper into its depths. Him? Belle's extra senses flicked over this unappetizing individual. No, this fellow was simply suffering from a diseased syphyllic mind. This particular village had a surfeit of such poor wretches. She found what she sought in his companion, a seemingly ordinary looking man, with similar facial features, possibly his brother, though she really didn't care. He held an amulet in one hand and a half finished turkey leg in the other.

"Oi there wench, bring me another!" he cried out when he spotted her, glamour-spelled to look like a serving woman.

"Seriously?" Belle had never let one of her ownn glamour spells drop faster. It was quite satisfying seeing the fellow shrink back as she was revealed in all her scaled glory.

"Shit."

"Indeed."

With a wave of her hand Belle the amulet transferred itself to Belle’s hand. She knew the instant its former owner’s spell was broken, from the collective gasp of the crowd clearly audible from the other side of the curtain.

Chapter Text

The enchantment fell.  The crowd let out a collective gasp.

Then came the cries of “Liar!  Mountebank! Charlatan!”  as the villagers surged forth as one.

Unfortunately, the target of their ire was not on the stage.  As soon as he realized Belle had his amulet, the slave trader vacated his place behind the curtain and high-tailed it out of there.  Belle would have frozen him to the spot, if she wasn’t so distracted by the mob.  In their anger the marketgoers had mounted the steps up to the platform and appeared just about ready to take out their rage on the poor wretches for sale.  They were far easier targets than their dishonest seller and well within reach, after all. 

Mobs—Belle had all the experience she needed with them.  In the anonymity of a crowd a man could do anything and get away with it, especially to a woman. The power of an angry mob was something even her dark heart feared.

 Leave!  Leave now! the cursed spirit inside screamed at her.   While the spirit was completely immortal, it could still be scattered to the winds if Belle, its vessel, died. 

“What?  And let the slave trader who caused all this go free?”

Fine, vapourize him, whatever, just get moving.

“But the slaves—“

Not our problem. 

“And the mob?” 

Who cares if they’re torn to pieces? We’re here for the amulet. These wretches are powerless.  They’re of no consequence to us.  

It was that thought that spurred her to action. What La Belle Dame San Merci detested more than anything else in the entire universe was the type of thinking that could write off another person as “being of no consequence.” Just a slave, just a jumped up tinker’s daughter, just a woman—no one who really mattered—meaning nobody with real power to hold another person accountable, nothing but a thing, a beast, an object, with no agency of its own.  No she had not taken the power for that—to be the sort of being that did to others what had once been done to her.

“Really?  That’s all you’ve got?  Who do you think you’ve been living inside these past hundred years?  Do you even know me?” 

My apologies, oh, easily irritated one, what I meant to say was—

“The thing people forget about treating the powerless like they don’t matter is that power can change hands!”

Fine, fine, let justice be served, but let’s be quick about it, alright miss hero?  There’s something about this place that’s doesn’t smell quite right.

“Pfft. You worry too much.  Who are these idiots anyway?  Why would they try to punish the slaves?  Surely they couldn’t imagine these unfortunates were actually colluding in the slave trader’s deception? What would they profit from being sold for a better price?”

This is what shocks you?  Trust me, no one’s ever lost a fortune betting against human stupidity.

“Something to remember the next time I go to the races.”

The crowd was out for blood and it would have it.

“I guess anyone’s blood will do?”

Or maybe they’re just trying to punish the trader by destroying his merchandise

And with that disturbing thought foremost in her mind, Belle parted the curtain and stepped on the stage.

The first impression she had wasn’t of the villagers’ faces distorted with anger or the terrified, screaming slaves. 

What struck her, oddly enough was the stage itself.  The boards beneath her feet themselves.  The earth they stood on. 

All of it, a deep, deep well of magical potential, stretching from this moment, far far back into the ancient past.

So much had happened here— Instantly, she was flooded by the emotion; The desperate cries and miserable shufflings of slaves sold at auction, families parted at the sound of a gavel;  Travelling actors drinking in the thunderous ecstasy of applause, laughing, crying in the heat of performance, where pretend situations could easily merge with real feeling; The blood of criminals lashed for punishments they didn’t deserve, soaking into the knots in the timber, never fully cleaned out;  The last gasps of highwaymen about to be hanged; The blood of beheadings; The celebration of name days, feasts in honour of local noble’s marriages, harvest festivals, seasons of plentiful wheat and corn; The fear of young soldiers called forth from this stage by recruiters, conscripted to battle never to be seen again; The strange erotic rites of the ancient worship of a rather singular local fertility goddess, still practiced even now by a select few worshipers upon the summer solstice;  Older, stranger, rituals performed by moonlight, before the stage itself existed, when these boards were trees in a sacred grove; And further back still to the brutal practices of a bygone era; White robed priests weaving a dream-like dance among standing stones of eerie astronomical calculation, so that when the shadows converged the two sacrifices would be led between them, one woman and one man on the rowanwood altar…

Belle swallowed the tasted of bile in her mouth.

 “You animals…” she whispered.  She didn’t even have to call it, the magic drew itself to her like iron filings to a magnet.  With disgust surging inside her, a wave of red and black mist rose up around her.  Then with one wave of her hands, it radiated out in a rush from where she stood like the shockwave of a meteor strike.

“Magic!  Dark ma—“ the crowd’s cries were left incomplete as the wave crashed over them and subsumed them.

The mist of magic dispersed nearly as quickly as it came.  In its wake the only humans left standing, blinking owlishly in surprise were the slaves. 

Where the villagers and traders had stood moments ago, there were now an odd assortment of farm animals; ducks, goats, chickens, sheep, cows and donkeys, all clucking and neighing in shock.  A draft horse who had up until a few seconds before been a tavern keeper, gave a hysterical whinny and tried to run full tilt into the public house, only to find himself stuck in the front door, stomping the ground with huge clumsy hooves. 

Belle flicked aside a patched curtain and emerged on stage with a sarcastic slow-clap of her hands.  “Yes, bravo, bravo.  What a show.  Now wasn’t that amusing?” 

She looked around for confirmation at the group huddled around, listening to the gibbering murmur from cracked and thirsty lips: “La Belle Dame Sans Merci. It’s her, it’s her.” 

From the stage beside her, a woman with tangled filthy hair and a dress of stained rags bowed low at her feet—“Please mistress, don’t hurt us—we’re good, loyal slaves.  We’ll do whatever you want us to do, we will, we will.”  The rest simply nodded and echoed her words. 

Belle just rolled her eyes.  “Oh for goodness sake!  The last thing I need is you lot hanging around cluttering up the castle!” she snapped her fingers and the chains fell off the slaves, crashing metallically to the ground.  “There--- you’re all free—not slaves anymore, in case you want me to spell it out any further.  So you can do whatever you want with these livestock and this—“ she wrinkled her nose like she’d smelled something malodorous, “Village.  It’s yours now if you want it.  See if you can do a better job than they did if you like.  Not that I have any great hopes on that score.  Ah well…” she stepped nimbly over a fallen iron shackle, the amulet still clasped in her hand. 

Chapter Text

 

“I’d like to say it’s been swell, but—“ Belle’s glib speech faltered for a moment.  Why,  if she had the talisman, was her magic sense still buzzing away in the back of her brain like she’d forgotten something—some item of great power whose source she couldn’t pinpoint—something her senses kept skittering over like an object hidden under a cloth—something she couldn’t see, but whose outline could be dimly perceived.  This feeling, this scent-- suggested… what exactly? 

It doesn’t matter, let’s just get out of here, groused the spirit within her. 

“Wait, if I can only stay a moment longer I think I can figure out—“

She continued to orate for the crowd as the argument went on within her.  She was used to these daily tugs of war with the cursed spirit she lived with.  Usually they found an amicable balance in time..

She gave a quick glance around at the assembled livestock and began again:  “I’d say it’s been a treat, but that would be a lie.  “So long and thanks for all the—“  She spun on her heel and threw up her hand to initiate her teleportation spell, but just as she did so, a voice broke through her speech.   

“Wait!”  It was a man’s voice—a cracked high tenor. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci!  Wait!”  She turned to glare at the former slave who dared to interrupted her.

 Really this is starting to get ridiculous, we’ve wasted enough time in this backwater village as it is. 

He crouched on the stage near the curtain behind her. 

And he just had to use our name in full!  Son of a bitch!

There were certain ancient compulsions worked into the curse that had made her that the spirit within her still found hard to resist. Pausing, she looked down at the man—a desperate soul if there ever was one she judged him, but there was something else there too, like an itch at the back of her mind, what was it? 

He rose to his knees—his gaunt cheeks flushed with fever, but his brown eyes strangely clear, “What about me?”

She looked down at him, possibly the scrawniest, filthiest, most pathetic looking slave of the entire misbegotten bunch.

“Yes, and what about you?”

“My shackle—“ he begged pointing down to the iron cuff around his leg.  It was attached to a chain, the chain padlocked to a ring nailed down to the floor of the stage. Really, if they’d spent half as much money feeding him as they had chaining him, she might’ve only been able to see two or three of his ribs, instead of the whole damn collection.

 “You freed all the others.  Why n-n-not me?  P-p-please …” he stammered, huge brown eyes wide as a puppy’s in his hollow cheeked face.   “At least let me die free.” 

Then, as if cognizant to whom he was voicing such unheard of demands to, he added a few words of flattery as an afterthought; ”Oh beauteous, all knowing all wise, all powerful Lady of a thousand mysteries, mistress of the Castle Dark, guardian of the—“

“Yes, yes yes” she waved the useless flattery away.  It was strange.   Hadn’t she expressedly thrown the spell out to free all the slaves?  Oh well, it was always possible to miss one.    Using the man’s desperation as all the magical fuel she needed, Belle tossed a quick charm at the miserable thing to free him from his chains.   The spell travelled over, hit the former slave and bam! It ricocheted right back at Belle, exploding in her face as it hit her at top speed, sending her sprawling to the ground below nearly ten feet away, flat on her back. 

Luckily, the assembled humans and former-human livestock were too shocked and scared of her to come close or they would’ve realized that she was actually senseless and therefore nearly defenseless for a good two or three seconds.  Any enemy among the thousands she’d made over the years could’ve got the drop on her in that moment of weakness.

She rose to her feet, shaken, but trying not to show it.

What the bloody hell was THAT?  She dusted herself out, trying to think of an explanation.  Had she ever read about anything like this before?  She itched to get home to scour her library for some mention of a spell of this calibre.

Of course the best source of information would be to ask the one who cast it.

She glared accusingly at the slave.  He appeared to be trying to make himself invisible, by sinking further down to the boards, but only succeeded in looking like a puddle of rags.

“You DARE assault ME?  Do you know who I AM?”

“I-I-I-I---“ the man was sobbing now, trembling on the spot.  “I didn’t mean to-- I wasn’t trying t-t-to hurt y-y—“

“As if a wretched thing like you could!” she scoffed.  “I think it’s time you learned exactly what ‘Sans Merci’ truly means.”

Not to mention that she needed to get back to the Dark Castle to regroup and she would have to take the him with her now—because whatever power he’d used to do that to her, she wanted a better look.  If this unassuming slave had been booby trapped with some kind of spell that made her magic rebound on her by one of her enemies it would be dangerous to try another spell on him to teleport him back to the castle. Now how to get him home in one piece?  With a quick wave of her hand, a carriage lounging on the blocks at a repair station, broke free.

Well it’s owner won’t need it, now that he’s a budgie, will he?

“Fair enough.”

The animated wood and metal carriage did what she instructed.  It removed the rebellious slave from the stage-- chain, ring and all, wrapped him up in its window curtains and tossed him into the carriage’s seating area.  The door slammed shut of its own accord and the carriage magically propelled itself down the stage ramp and quickly out of the village. 

It would not rest, Belle knew, until it arrived at the Dark Castle, deep in the Haunted Wood where no one would follow.  Luckily, this particular village was only a day’s journey away by horse.

With a flick of her hand, Belle was back home in the castle.  With immense relief she felt her power and sense of equilibrium return within minutes.   

Now to prepare a welcoming cell for our new “guest.”

Chapter Text

Rumple, you fucking IDIOT!

Had he a free hand he would’ve smacked his own forehead in frustration.  As it was, all he did was give a little wiggle and he rolled off the carriage seat and fell painfully to the floor. Not only was he still wrapped up in the carriage curtain like a human blintz, but now his nose was bleeding all over the crushed red velvet. 

He should have known better.  Understatement of the year.  If anyone in the entire Enchanted Forest should have known the dangers of sticking one’s head out and calling unnecessary attention to oneself, it should have been Rumplestilstkin, former spinner, grifter, soldier and slave. 

The aunts who raised him always said nothing good would ever come of revealing to anyone he had magic.  They urged him to stay with them in their small provincial village,  to inherit their spinning and weaving business and tidy little cottage with the warm hearth and neat vegetable garden in the back.   He could have settled down, found a good woman who didn’t mind so much that her husband did what was traditionally “woman’s work,” loved her and provided for her and made enough money to send at least one child to a proper school.  He was kind and hard-working, an average man to look at, if a tad short of stature—not a terrible catch by any means.  He could have had a perfectly ordinary, normal freeman’s life.

Nothing good ever came of humble folk calling attention to themselves, trying to be something grander than they were, his aunts told him.  It was just looking for trouble to upset the natural order of things.  “Why just look at your father,” they’d say and cluck their tongues and shake their heads. 

But Rumple couldn’t see what was wrong with his father. He thought his father was wonderful, with his bright flashy clothes, the easy grin and talk of the exotic places he’d been, the people he’d met.  More than anything in the world, he wished he could go with his father when he went on his adventures. 

Instead Rumple had to wake up early, tend the sheep and do the chores, the same routine day after day.  He dreamed of going with his father to the royal city to see jousting matches and festivals and hobnob with royalty. 

Every time his father Malcolm, who styled himself a travelling “troubadour,” came to visit ,Rumple tried everything he could to make his papa stay with him.  Still rack his brains as he might, nothing Rumple ever did prevented Papa from leaving yet again. 

If only he could make himself interesting to his father, Rumple thought, then maybe Malcolm would want to take him with on his adventures.   He so, so , so wanted his father to love him.  But all it seemed his father loved aside from drink and travel and women, was gold which was, Papa told him, the only ticket one needed to get the other three.

If he could just help his papa get some gold, then Malcolm would surely take him along, wouldn’t he?  They could be a team, a proper father and son duo.    

At his spinning wheel Rumple dreamed of travelling with Malcolm, how his father would turn to him and say “well done Rumple” after he performed a new song on his lute and ruffle his hair and teach him to ride on horseback (how he’d always wanted to learn!).  Together they would ride on his father’s fine black horse, Rumple holding his father around the tummy as they travelled to distant lands.

Magic feeds off emotion. The strongest feelings of hope and yearning poured from him as he spun, entranced by this imaginary future, lost in his fantasy of being loved.  The power of his young, as yet uncrushed, imagination that could picture so freely the feeling of his father’s big hand smoothing his hair with pride transmuted a piece of wool in his hand into gold.   

As he grew older it happened at other times, too.   As the wheel spun him into a trance he recalled Bess the pub landlord’s daughter wandering by his stall at the market, to buy red yarn to plait through her long black hair.  He dreamed of his own nimble fingers combing through her hair, twining love knots and ribbons and bits of flowers into those soft, silky tresses.  He dreamed of her naked before she put on her shift to go to bed, creamy peach skin and that long black braid hanging down her back, leaving both breasts sinfully bare.  He dreamed of touching those pale breasts in the moonlight… and thread he wove was instantly shot through with gold. 

He could keep it a secret no longer.  He told his Aunt Flora, showed her the strands and demonstrated to her what he could do.  This time he drew the gold forth with another wishful fantasy, one of the life that could be his with his unique talent, of a large house of brick all his own and fine linens for his bed, of servants and clothes made by hands other than his own, a library full of books for him to read, a head full of knowledge so that men of wisdom would travel from far to ask his advice, a world in which he’d show them all that he was more than just a humble spinner, the unwanted son of a shiftless travelling musician.

His Aunt Flora sat upon her wood stool and watched him spin, a strand of pure gold at least a foot long and pursed her mouth.

Rumple was dreaming of his own lavish wedding, attended by his father in a fine suit of clothes and his  good friend the Duke, when his reverie was broken.  “Stop!” said his aunt in a curt voice. 

“What?  Why?  Can you imagine Papa’s face when he finds out I can do this!”

“I don’t mean to be unkind dearie, but I don’t think you should tell anyone least of all your Papa.”  “

“What?”  Rumple stared, flabbergasted.

“He can be a very rash man, that father of yours,” she added hastily.  “Selfish.  He would use your talent for his own gain, even when it wasn’t good for you.”

“You just want to keep me here with you to do all your boring extra chores so you don’t have to!”

“Now you know that’s rubbish,” elderly Aunt Fauna chided him.  “We just want what’s best for you, a good morally upright, stable life, with a trade to call your own.  We truly do care for you dear.” 

Now, lying ignobly on the floor of the carriage, he wondered if his aunt had said “love” instead of “care for” would that have made him stay?

But all that was in the passed now.  Despite their warnings he told his father, unable to keep his amazing secret inside anymore, and with sorrowful hearts his aunts watched him leave with Malcolm the very next day overjoyed to be out of the village at last to seek his fortune. 

Within a few months Rumple was forced to come to the conclusion that his aunts had been right.  His father was selfish.  He didn’t really care about Rumple himself, just about what he could do.  At first Rumple was so filled with joy, just to be chosen to be with Malcolm at last, that he had no trouble turned dozens of balls of yarn into gold, and not just yarn all sorts of things he could weave and spin, even straw when there was nothing else around to work with.  He could twist it into gold braids and bracelets they could sell or trade. 

Malcolm used the money to pay off his creditors and he was free and happy, toasting his son at every lavish meal.   Instead of investing his saving his new surplus or buying a house somewhere for him and his son to settle down in, his unexpected windfall began to burn a hole in his pocket as soon as he got it.  Malcolm quickly spent it on larger wagers, bigger betting houses, more drink and fine food.  Then there were the crazy get-rich-quick schemes that began when Rumple’s gold making began to peter out, culminating in the time Malcolm spent nearly all their money buying apples on the cheap in one town with the intention to sell them in the next town over. Unfortunately, the the apples all went rotten in the transit, this unhappy state of affairs, not helped on at all by Malcolm, who, drunk on homemade cider, accidentally swerved their cart into a gaping hole in the rode and tipped the lot of them over into a ditch.  This incident left Rumple with his first broken nose, though certainly not his last.

“Don’t worry it’ll give you character, son,” was Malcolm’s only comment. 

It gave Rumple character alright; a cynical, miserable character.  And so eventually he didn’t dream of a better life at all, and the only time a few threads of precious metal that came from his fingers, was when he remembered back to his aunties’ cozy kitchen, his belly full of that warm mince pie they used to cook.  He remembered how his aunts used to sing sometimes while they worked, their voices clear pure alto and soprano, overlapping each other like burbling water coursing over pebbles in a clear mountain stream.  He remembered when Aunt Flora made him his cornhusk dolly and tucked him into his little trundle bed at night.  With his hopes and dreams for the future so lost and broken, it seemed the only joyful emotions he could get were from the past, and even those were touched by sadness now, as it was only a wistful sort of joy, resulting nothing more than tarnished silver.

The less Rumple produced the worse the pressure from his father’s creditors got.  The worse the pressure from their creditors got, the more displeased Malcolm grew with Rumple.  The more displeased Malcolm grew with Rumple the sadder Rumple got and the less he produced.  It was a terrible viscous cycle, that Rumple knew would only end with his father taking him back to his aunties.

But that wasn’t where his father took him. 

Yes, Rumple could trace every stroke of bad fortune he’d suffered all these years to that one imprudent decision to reveal his magic to his father. He should have learned that magic would never bring him anything but misery, if not from his treatment by his father, than certainly from his enslavement by the Duke for his part in trying to trick him.  Being forced to weave and spin without pay would have cured any man of ever trusting anyone with his secret ever again.

But it hadn’t cured Rumplestilskin.  He had the idiocy to trust another slave who said she loved him, who plotted with him to escape their masters together.  Cora, who’d abandoned him and left him to suffer a slow death from whatever poison had been leaking into his body from that accursed shackle.

Even the biggest idiot in the entire world would’ve known to be quiet then.  To keep his head down, to hide. 

He always had to speak up at just he worst possible time, to always tell the absolutely worst person he could, culminating in, of all things, telling the bloody Belle Dame Sans Merci to set him free!  What the hell had he been thinking?

I just wanted so badly, oh so badly to be free.  For once not to be the one left out. 

Only he realized now, if he’d not been so rash and just thought about it for a single second—any of the other slaves could have freed him.  Once La Belle Dame Merci was well on her way he could’ve asked nicely, “Would someone please nip down to the blacksmith’s shop for a hammer and chisel and crack this shackle for me?”  Someone would’ve helped.  Or maybe the other former slaves would’ve left him as is, he mused darkly, with no other humans in the village, now that everyone had been turned into barnyard animals, they’d need someone to order around, even someone as pathetic and useless as him. 

Not that it mattered now.  He would be dead within days, he knew—whether at the hands of the dark sorceress or to fever, (he rather hoped the later, personally), but he could feel it now, that he wasn’t long for this world.  He only hoped it wouldn’t hurt too much.  He’d suffered so much these last several years, he only hoped his end might be as painless as possible. 

“So much for Rumplestiltskin, he’d never speak up again in this world at least, that was certain,” he thought as he lay wrapped up in the carpet on the floor of the carriage and cried bitterly to himself.  Tears fell into his ears and mouth and he felt momentarily ashamed, but then again what did it matter? There was no one there to see him and no one to cry on his behalf, no one left to mourn the imminent demise of Rumplestilskin but himself, as if he had ever existed at all, except for a funny old story about a young man whose father told a king he could spin straw into gold and a king who for one moment believed him.

It didn’t matter now, he couldn’t struggle his way free from his binds, he was too weak.  And if he somehow succeeded and flung himself out of the carriage, what could he do but crawl around in the dark, in the cold winter forest all alone?  Better, much better to stay where he was.

It was warm in the carriage, almost pleasantly so, safe from the wind and the freezing rain outside.  The curtains felt snug and cozy around him, almost like the swaddling of a baby. The carriage rocked as it moved, too, a lullying sort of motion. It had been so so so long, since his meatless bones had been properly warm, since he had been allowed an uninterrupted time to sleep.  Even as afraid as he was, , his battered body could sustain a wakeful state no longer.  His consciousness crashed in on itself and he slept, soon he slept deeply, the sleep of the utterly exhausted with life. 

Chapter Text

 

“Well that certainly took long enough,” said Belle, eyeing the horseless carriage suspiciously. “Now what am I going to with you?”

There was no response from the man resting at the bottom.

Wait a tick, who sits in a carriage like that?

“Well that tears it, he’s dead,” said Belle dispassionately.

“Pfft relax, he’s just sleeping,” squeaky a creaky voice like rusty wheelsprings. “No thanks to you. I had to take him for a drink and nosh in transit didn’t I? Else he really would be dead.”

“You took him for a drink and a snack? Wait, sorry, but exactly who are you? Where are you?”

“Yoo hoo, over here!”

Belle gaped at the recently animated carriage—the one curtain not used to restrain her captive waved at her like a giant hand from the window.

“Great, I thought I animated you with precise instructions to take him to my castle, disgorge him and then lie fallow until I have further need of you. I don’t remember mentioning anything about talking.”

The carriage hoisted itself up and then down again on its rusty springs in what Belle could swear for all the world was an approximation of a shrug like it wanted to say “Eh? What’cha gonna do?”

“How did you get him a snack anyway?”

“As it so happens we were accosted by a group of highwaymen en route. I did my best spooky voice, they scarpered and when they was gone, I spied this lovely little campfire with a jug of ale and rabbit roasting on a spit, so I just disgorged our little traveller here, made sure he partook of a little meat and drink and then we were on our way again. Just in case you’re curious the wine jug’s on the seat. Might as well drink the rest. Spindleshanks here’s a bit of a light weight.”

“Spindle—what?”

“It’s what I call him, my passenger.”

“You named him? Like- like a pet?

“Well, look at you, the great Dark One, knickers all in a knot! You’d think a little thank you might be in order for me having the wherewithal not to let him expire! Besides, it’s just temporary til we find out his real name. I daresay he wouldn’t take too kindly to us calling him that on a regular basis.”

“Us?”

“Really it’s a good thing you animated me because there’s no way he’d ever make it to your castle on his own, he’s so weak, he can barely take two steps on his own without falling over, poor thing.”

Belle glared fiercely at the sleeping man in the bottom of the erratically behaving carriage. Her magic never went this awry before. What was going on? It was him—it had to be. HE was throwing her magic off course, but how? She had to get him to her tower and figure this out before there were any further mishaps.

Belle brought a carrying spell to her fingertips—

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” scolded the carriage in the dulcet tones of rusty axels grinding.

“Lovely, just what I need, another bloody voice in my head.”

I heard that! muttered the cursed spirit darkly within her and went back to sleep.

However, the talking carriage was right. If she tried to use her magic directly on this Spindleshanks person who knew what sort of other enchanted booby traps or curses she might activate? So far she’d been lucky and the ricochet had only momentarily disabled her, but once her enemies discovered it hadn’t worked, who knew what new scheme they’d try? She had to discover what they were planning and this misbegotten slave was her only means of doing so at the moment.

“Stop standing around! Unwrap him!” she commanded the carriage. She could swear the animated hunk of wood and metal did so as slowly and cheekily as it was possible.

As soon as the man was unfurled a pungent odour, not unlike a stinky cheese hit her nostrils at full blast. The man was clad in nothing more than a pair of threadbare trousers. The shackle around his right leg still retained its chain, which was still attached in turn to the wood plank she’d magically torn off the auction stage.

Unwrapped Belle could see that the blasted coach was right, there was no way he’d be following her across the courtyard up the steps to the castle, across the grand hallway and down the spiral staircase to the specially prepared cell she’d just created for him in the dungeon. She wondered why they’d even bothered to shackle and chain him in the first place. Even from a distance she could see his right foot would be no good for walking. She supposed she could drag him downstairs, but try as she might, she couldn’t picture it in her mind in any way that didn’t look ridiculous, or end up with her accidentally squashed under him at the bottom of the stairs. Was this what people without magic had to deal with on a regular basis? It was so easy to forget.

“Oh bother.”

That there might be any difficulty actually getting him to the cell was the one possibility she hadn’t prepared for. He couldn’t make it there under his own power, she couldn’t use her magic to teleport him, and the carriage was too wide to fit through the door of the castle without some serious remodelling. What in the world was she going to do?

She kicked a stone in frustration. It skipped over the path, through the wicker loops that cordoned off the area of the palace grounds she used for her garden. The outer ring of the garden was planted with ordinary flowers, roses mainly, and nonmagical. Still sporting the effects of fall’s first frost, they sparkled in the thin sunlight that signaled the beginning of winter.

Suddenly, Belle had an idea.

Chapter Text

As it turned out, even La Belle Dame San Merci was not impervious to the beauty of flowers. In fact, she actually quite liked gardening, even if some of the plants she grew were of an unconventional and somewhat deadly variety.

Her first order of business was to find something that would allow her to touch him without harming herself. Her eyes lit on a pair of gardening gloves resting atop an abandoned wheelbarrow. Checking the perimeter to make sure no one was there to see, she rolled the wheelbarrow over to the carriage. With the gloves extended their full length up to her elbows for protection and an apron on for good measure to protect her dress from whatever filth the passenger/prisoner was caked in, she approached her quarry.

With an undignified grunt the great and mighty Dark One, most powerful sorceress in all twelve known dimensions, manhandled an unconscious slave in the wheelbarrow through the courtyard to the castle’s back entrance, through the former servants’ doors and hallway and into the grand hall. By the time she got there she was huffing and puffing. It was so easy to forget how much effort everything required without a little magic to assist her. How did ordinary humans survive the frustration? And yet she had once counted herself one, long ago when she was young and innocent… she pushed the old memories away, concentrated on the task at hand.

It would be too difficult, she decided, to cart him down to the dungeon. At any rate what would she do when she needed to experiment on him down there? If she couldn’t teleport him up, then every time she wanted to do anything at all, she’d have to teleport herself and half the contents of her laboratory down. There had to be better way.

She thought briefly of just leaving him in the main hall, but quickly nixed the idea. There were far too many of her prizes on display for him to knock about in his clumsy maneuverings. She wanted to keep that golden fleece in pristine condition, dammit. What was needed was somewhere he could be safely contained and couldn’t do any damage, somewhere within easy reach of her laboratory. There were plenty of rooms on the top floor previously used to house members of the royal household she’d taken the castle from. Surely, one of those capacious chambers could accommodate such a meagre specimen. But how to get him up there?

Just then she remembered the grand dining room. The room was enormous. It had a high vaulted ceiling that sported a rather unique feature; a three tiered crystal chandelier hanging from the gilded jawbones of the very last Frontlands dragon. Not that they had existed in the wild for close to a century. The specimen the chandelier was made from had once been the highlight of the royal menagerie, a pet who’d died of natural causes. Belle knew all this because she never took up ownership of a castle without first reading up on its history and this particular castle had quite the storied past.

She searched the purple flocked wallpaper for the tell-tale sign of a hidden door. It had to be here, she was certain this was where the shaft she’d found behind a small door on the top floor led down to.

It was a moment’s work to move the fancy sideboards and gilded chairs away from the walls with her powers. Ah! There it was, a tiny, brass knob previously hidden by a cabinet. Exposed now, it twinkled with reflected candlelight in the corner of the room

Belle opened the door. It squeaked a little on its hinges, but the sturdy metal tray and pulleys inside seemed sound when she worked them. The counterweights were present and in working order. The device was of a kind she remembered from her time at the Marshlands castle, where she and her father had lived when they’d been in the Duke’s employ. It was called a “dumbwaiter” and the servants used it to deliver food from the kitchens in the sub-basement to the main floor for meals and then to the noble’s rooms upstairs for private, less formal meals; although, as she’d discovered on one particularly revealing late night perambulation around the Duke’s castle, food wasn’t the only thing it could deliver. She’d seen a scantily clad maid hoisted up on the tray to be taken to the Duke’s rakish young son by his valet, much like a cold joint of meat for a midnight snack.

Luckily, this particular dumbwaiter was more than sufficiently wide to fit the still unconscious slave—she would not call him Spindleshanks—inside. She yanked on the pulley rope and the counterweights did the rest. Then she locked her pulley rope and teleported herself and the wheelbarrow upstairs. It was an awkward bit of business unloading the slave from the dumbwaiter into the wheelbarrow, but finally she was able to trundle him down the hall to be deposited in the nearest room that featured a still serviceable bed.

A flick of her fingers dispelled the dust and cobwebs-- she did so hate doing magic in surroundings that weren’t pristine, it mucked with the results—and dumped the man out of the wheelbarrow, onto the bed.

She gave him a quick once over. He was still covered in a thick layer of vile smelling dirt and grime and she certainly had little interest in discovering the true origins of the brown smear running up his back. Belle absolutely drew the line at giving this miscreant a bath with her own hands, but then how could she get close enough to test the nature of his magic if he retained such a rancid smell? What to do?

Approaching cautiously she focused all her magic on the particles of dirt themselves, ignoring the hair, flesh and clothes they clung to. It took a great deal more time and effort but she succeeded in separating the filth from the man and vapourizing it as soon as it fell off him into the air.

The only bits she removed from him that she did not vapourize directly were a clod of clay and a single louse she sent to a specially prepared box in her laboratory. She wanted to be careful just in case lice and dirt were the vessels her enemies had used to house their magic booby trap and not the man himself.

Now that the dirt and bugs were blasted off him, she could see his skin was a pinkish tan colour and his hair appeared naturally mud brown, flecked with gray. She likewise vapourized the set of threadbare trousers he wore to preserve his modesty for the villagers at the auction. At least his private parts seemed in good working order and unaffected by whatever seemed to have blighted his chained leg.

She turned to this last of all because she had suspicions about magical interference there. She was pretty sure now that he had not put the chain on himself and it disgusted her that her enemies might have taken some poor soul they deemed “expendable” and made him into an unwilling delivery system for a magic bomb, just to take her out.

Still, even this explanation, couldn’t fully account for the man’s condition and the effect he had on her magic. In whatever condition he was in though, he presented a threat. Watching him, perfectly at her mercy as he slept naked on the coverlet, she knew there were countless nonmagical ways she could snuff out his paltry existence—
--- throw a rock on him, use a hammer, a sword, I mean you have an actual working guilliotine in the basement for fuck’s sake—
babbled the cursed spirit frantically. She had never heard it so terrified.
--eliminate the threat NOW, while you still can, before he wakes up!

But Belle, being Belle, couldn’t do it—she had to KNOW.

“He’s a living breathing puzzle,” she told the cursed spirit. “If I don’t find out how he works, it’ll torment me for the rest of my days.”

-If he wakes up and kills you, you won’t have many of those left!

“Pshaw!” she snorted back at it. “What’s the point of being La Belle Dame Sans Merci, if I don’t pursue knowledge to its ultimate length? I hold truck with no superstition, am bound by no promise to man or god to curb my curiosity. Why be practically immortal if I’m going to attack or run from everything that startles or confuses me like a frightened animal? Wasn’t it you who told me once you merged with me, I’d never have to be frightened of anything or anyone ever again?”

-Well perhaps I overstated that last just a bit! There’s something fishy about him, mark my words!

La Belle Dame Sans Merci laughed, a peal of cold, clear bells that echoed through the gray chamber.

Daringly, just to irritate the dark spirit, she let her hand trail down along the length of the chain attached the shackle.

No! No! No!
She felt a staticky charge and braced for a magical attack. Then the static faded and nothing happened. Really, she wasn’t completely surprised the dark spirit was a coward at heart. The more she thought about it, the more she questioned the spirits quick appraisal of the situation.
If the chain was magical and crafted solely to take her out, then why did the chain itself look so old? Not to mention, that the slave looked like he’d been wearing the thing for ages. His deformed foot and ankle looked more like the result of years of some bizarre type of slow progressing disease than something that occurred overnight. What enemy would know that far in advance she would be coming to that particular slave auction at that particular village when she herself didn’t know until a month or so before?

There were seers of course, and magicians that specialized in prognostications of the future, but even in possession of such foreknowledge what would-be revenger would go about a mission in such a haphazard manner? Stories in books were always filled with villains tying heroes up to drown slowly or be eaten by venomous crocodiles and then walking away without witnessing the coup de grace, (La Belle Dame Sans Merci always saw her enemies dispatched right away with the minimum of baroque weaponry, thank you very much), but this beggared belief.

Still, whatever magic had made the shackle, do that to him, she wanted to avoid being next—while still curious about how it was done. Now how to remove it without using her magic directly on his person?

Putting up all the magical shields she knew how to make, she opened a tiny hole in her shielding, just a hair’s width to send out a thin tendril of magic spell. It was a simple incantation to speed up the advancement of rust applied to a tiny portion of the metal ring. It wasn’t quick, not at this thickness, and Belle worried the man would wake up, but he remained fast asleep as the spell worked and ate away at the iron ring around his ankle for fifteen minutes, until at last it went right through.

It opened and fell with an audible clank beside him on the bed.

The man did not wake up despite the clanking, only sighed deeply. Belle stole a glance at his face. Even in sleep it contained a look of irritated consternation, drawn in brows and clenched teeth. Now, by rapid degrees his face grew slack and his clenched jaw loosened. A relieved smile played about the corners of his upturned lips as he exhaled.

“Like he’s breathing out something he’s been holding in for years,” she thought and felt something tight unwind in herself at the same time.

Suddenly, she was aware of his nakedness. Even in sleep his arms were drawn in over himself, his legs folded as if to make himself small and protect his vulnerable body. A door opened in her mind, one that hadn’t budged for centuries. Once she’d been where he was now, naked, injured and vulnerable beneath another who held all the power.
Whatever suggestions the dark spirit might make in that direction, and despite what her name might suggest, Belle was not completely without mercy. The stories and ballads depicted mortals who begged favour of La Belle Dame Sans Merci requesting things like magical red roses to win the hand of a true love or cursed crowns to magically hasten the death of royal rivals.

The truth was actually quite different. For one, Belle couldn’t make anyone fall in love. Those who did contact her about such matters got her standard shpeil about just treating the woman they fancied like a human being, for example, asking her about her opinions, showing interest in her as an actual person rather than just the quickest route to title, heirs and a good roll in the hay, and that often worked just as well.

Not to mention that most people weren’t willing to call on a dark sorceress who demanded such notoriously steep payments for things like greater wealth or higher position—not when there were usually so many more practical ways of achieving it through bribery, blackmail, assassination or the defamation of one’s superiors. In most cases rumours that someone had achieved unexpected success or inherited a title only thanks to Belle were baseless.

The actual people who summoned La Belle Dame Sans Merci tended to be the truly, truly desperate, usually those without means or resources, people who couldn’t afford the recourse of the law, medics or mercenaries to fight their battles for them, peasants mostly, or people of means who had tried every other solution they could buy, looking to Belle as their ultimate last resort; people willing to literally sell anything, risk anything, for the fulfillment of their request.

In all the years Belle had been granting favours and keeping records, the strongest requests were always from people wishing to dispel pain or illness; Parents begging her to heal a sick child, others to save the life of a partner, family member or friend, to lift a famine or allow a maimed man to heal and work again so he’d have food for his family. Those were the usual requests, not the fanciful ones in the stories.

Still, in all her years curing nearly every type wound and disease, she had never seen anything like the slave’s affliction.

The foot beneath where the metal cuff had been was withered and grayish-brown, strangely flat and curling under and in on itself like a dry, dying leaf. Above the colour was almost as bad, but as it went up, the withered gray gradually mottled to a pinker colour, until it became fully flesh toned and normal below the knee.

The human body, just didn’t do that—didn’t turn into some curled up dead leaf textured sort of thing-- not even when injured or diseased. Whether he’d done this to himself, or if it was done to him against his will or even by mistake, she knew magic when she saw it.

Belle instructed the sheets to pull themselves out and up to cover him up to his shoulders. Not because she felt badly for gawking, not at all, there was just no point in him dying of a chill before she could test his magic, that was all.

Then she took a pair of tongs from the fireplace and used them to lift the shackle and chain without risking touching the irons directly lest they inflict the same damage on her.

Instructing the fire to light itself on her way out, (once again simply because she had no wish for her new test subject to die of chill, not because she was concerned in the least about his welfare), she closed the door with a fastening spell so that it would only open for her. She walked to her lab quickly with the shackle and chain, carrying them far away from her body with the tongs like one would handle a snake.

In her lab, hours later after applying test after test, she stared at the device gobsmacked. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about it. It was exactly what it looked like, a plain iron chain and shackle, a little bit of corrosion and rust marring its black surface and nothing more. Just plain cold iron.

A further puzzle. She glanced off into the distance, thinking. From somewhere in the castle she heard the faint sound of china clinking against itself. Probably just Mrs. Potts playing with Chip in the kitchen again, she told herself absently, and went back to a particularly juicy selection on the alchemy of iron by Prospero.

Chapter Text

In his sleep Rumplestilskin felt wonderfully light and free. 

The chain that held him tethered to the ground fell away and he glided effortlessly through a peaceful white mist. The clouds were soft and the lack of pain was a calming, pleasurable sensation in and of itself.  All this time he’d been straining against it for so long that once released he literally flew, floating up into the air, free free free free! 

He zoomed up through the moist clouds until he reached the clear blue sky and felt the warm sun on his back.  He rolled out the knotted muscles of his shoulders.   The lash marks smoothed themselves away and his body grew strong againNow that he had control of his flight, he let himself glide slowly downward until he met the ocean.  Lazily he glided over the surface and trailed his fingers through the sparkling water.  Fish leapt up to greet him from the water and the rising sun painted the waves in a palette of pink, yellow and gold.    

Tired at last, he came to rest on an outcropping of smooth, water-worn rock. Feeling completely relaxed and at ease, he rubbed himself up against the sun-warmed moss.  Tension mounted in his nether regions as he continued to rub and then suddenly, released as the ocean rushed in once more, wet and warm up to his waist. 

He awoke with a smile on his lips. 

The room around him was strange, the bed much better than anything he was used to and oddly… sticky?

He lifted the sheet and blushed down to the tip of his nose and not just because he was naked beneath it.

How many years had it been since that happened? 

Then he remembered her, La Belle Dame Sans Merci.  This must be her castle and she would not be please, oh no…

He scrambled to get out of the bed, which was far to good for the likes of him anyway, forgot that rich people’s beds tended to be quite high up took a step down and put his foot into some kind of porcelain bowl thing, (a chamberpot, his mind corrected him).  He stumbled and fell down flat on the floor, completely off balance.

He squirmed out of the sheet he’d got himself twisted in and looked down in astonishment.  

He was CLEAN.  Even under his nails, the black ridges of dirt were gone! He was suddenly aware that he desperately needed to have a slash.  Unfortunately, the chamberpot had rolled halfway across the room.  He moved to get his legs under him so he could crawl after it and froze… what was this? No grating clink clink sound?  His right leg felt strangely light.  The awful, torturing weight that had been his constant company all those long long years was just… gone?

He stretched his leg out carefully, afraid his mind was playing tricks on him. 

But no, the shackle really had disappeared, vanished into thin air!

With trembling hands he felt his foot and ankle, still unable to believe it wasn’t a trick, that his prayers had really been answered. 

He rarely touched his damaged foot.  It disturbed him to touch a part of his own body and only feel it with his hands, like he was touching any other object; not to mention that the skin itself that looked and felt quite unlike normal human skin should. 

He had always secretly wondered if it would return to normal if the horrible shackle was ever removed.  Well, he supposed he now had his answer.  Still, he was free of the iron and the torture it caused.  Even if he was a prisoner of a dark sorceress, it beat what he had been the day before. 

Suddenly, he was filled with energy and purpose.

He located the chamberpot and did his business. 

This done, the next order of business was getting some food in him.  His was so hungry he’d grown nauseous and shaky.  His stomach growled like a beast within him.  As if in response to his unvoiced wish, a bowl of oatmeal, a piece of bread and a cup of tea appeared by his side on a tray.

He jumped, startled and the tray tipped over. Ravenous, he crouched down to lick its contents off the floor.  It was cleaner than most of the plates he’d eaten from as a slave anyway.  He sipped the tea straight down to the dregs and then ate those too. 

By then the weak winter daylight streaming in from the window had begun to wain.  With only a sheet to keep him warm, Rumplestilskin began to shiver.  Instantly a warm, soft robe wrapped itself around him like a cozy hug.  Then the embers of the fire that had gone out stoked itself back into flame and he could’ve sworn when he looked up that the two cushiony, highbacked lounge chairs now sitting by the fire’s warm glow hadn’t been there when he first woke up. 

He dragged himself towards the closest of the two and pushed himself up onto the plushest seat he’d ever sat upon.   A thick fur materialized out of nowhere and wrapped itself about his shoulders. Drowsy once more, his head nodded against the arm rest as he watched the flames. 

Really, he mused, this all had to be a dream. 

Chapter Text

Rumple was awake again, but he remained huddled in a ball on the huge armchair, under the warm fur blanket, by the glow of the fire.

He didn’t want to open his eyes, not yet, for fear it was all a dream or an enchantment and if he opened his eyes to look it would all be gone, melted away into the mist, and he would be back sleeping on a floor of dirty straw in a cold barn with the animals, still chained and shackled to a post. 

Thinking of the chain and shackle again he instinctively flexed his right leg to hear the clink of the links. The sound of nothing but the soft swish of animal skin was the sweetest sound he’d ever heard. 

Feeling braver now, he opened one eye just a crack and took in the room, the armchairs, the fireplace and bed laid out in  fine linen, the chamberpot and remains of his hastily gobbled repast.

So it hadn’t been a dream.

And then he became aware that there were other sounds in the room—muffled like conversation heard from the other side of a wall.  He concentrated and bizarrely, the voices became clearer. 

“Poor boy,” tutted a woman.  “Looks like he’s been through the bloody wringer, he has.”

“What d’ye think she wants with him?” asked a grumpy voice.

“Don’t know.”

“She’s never brought anyone else to stay.”

“Jefferson—“

“For one night now and again—“

“That doctor man, him with the odd colouring—“

“Not to stay, indefinitely.”

“D’ye think he’s magic then?”

Rumple shivered at this suggestion, but remained in place.  After all the misery disclosing his magic had caused him in his life, he wasn’t going to make the same mistake ever again, besides the fact that whatever slight magic he had once possessed it had surely been driven away by his harsh treatment at the hands of the slavers these past few years. 

“Him?  You’ve got to be bloody kidding.  Just look at the wee blighter— he were magic, y’think he’d let himself get in such a state as this?  No, she’s probably got some other fate in store for him.  Dragonbait or some such. ” 

“Now, Cogs, don’t be cruel.”

“’m not cruel, it’s just the truth.”

There was a brief crackling flare from the fireplace and another voice joined the conversation.

“Stop eet you two.  Gossiping like a bunch of fish wives.  He’s not a prisoner, he’s our guest.”

“Our guest?”

“Eh,” Rumple could almost hear the shrug in the other man’s accented voice, “well, that’s what the mistress said and you know—“

“Our magic extends as far as she says—“

 “Looks like, we’ve been given carte blanche by the mistress to make him comfortable.”

“I don’t like the direction this is going, Lumos we can’t have you getting carried away,“ worried the grumpy voiced one.

“Don’t be a puissant, haven’t you ever wondered what we could do if we were ever really allowed to let loose?”

“The mistress won’t be best please.”

“Quel domage, we’re not her slaves, if she don’t like it, she can get herself anozher enchanted castle.”

“Maybe we should talk about this a wee moment before—“

They were interrupted by the sound of a dog barking. It started out oddly muffled to Rumple’s ear as the voices had before, but as he focused on it it became louder and sharper and suddenly there was another sound, one he didn’t have to struggle to hear, like wooden table legs scuffling and scratching on the wooden door.  How very odd. 

“Oh well now ye’ve done it.  That’s Otto then, he’ll be wanting to come in.”

“Then open ze door.”

“I will not!”

There were several clinks like that of china tea set moving across the floor on a rolling tray.  Rumple opened an eye a crack--- it WAS a china tea set moving across the floor!  A blue patterned teapot stretched up from the rolling tray, did something to the doorknob and the door was flung open by an ottoman with four wooden legs, like a squat, broad chair.  It had dirty red upholstery with bedraggled golden tassels on two of its sides.  The ottoman burst into the room yapping and barking, snuffling around with one tasseled end for all the world exactly like a dog’s snout. 

Now Rumple had spent enough time as a runaway slave to know the dog was not a runaway’s friend; he’d seen others caught and nearly torn to pieces by the hunter’s packs sent out to find those like him.  He’d been lucky to escape that particular fate with little more than another broken nose— his last master had had an elderly female hound, excellent sense of smell, but pretty much toothless by the time she got a hold of Rumple, and still better fed and treated than the human “property” on the estate.

No wonder Rumple screamed and scrambled off the couch, falling to the floor in a heap once he heard the barking.

He held his hands up to his face, forgetting the ruse of being asleep in his panic—“Please please leave off—I’m not trying to escape!  I’m not!  N-n-nice d-d-doggie,” he stammered as he backed away unaware that he was moving in the direction of the fireplace.

“Arête!” shouted a crackling voice in a language he didn’t understand.

“Stop!  Watch where you’re going!” the tetchy voice located somewhere over the mantle screamed.

The command cut through the panic and Rumple stopped just before his bottom touched the fire. 

“Merci messieur,” said the magnanamous voice from the fireplace.  “Had you continued you vould most certainly ‘ave smothered me with your derriere.“

“Smothered?“  Rumple twisted to peer at the fire.  It had been damped down in anticipation of being smothered by his invading bottom, but now it flared back up into life again, crackling merrily. 

Rumple studied the flickering flames.  There was definitely something odd about them.  The gaps, where he could see the gray stone of the fireplace behind seemed to fall into the places where shadows would naturally occur in a brightly lit face.  The fire, despite its constantly moving, flickering, falling flames, never seemed to touch those spaces much, while concentrating the brightest of its light into certain spaces, so that if you unfocused your eyes a bit, the resemblance to a narrow, long nosed, friendly face was quite uncanny.

He reached out a hand—not to touch, but just to feel if it gave off real heat and the face opened its mouth and said quite flatly:

“Allo!”

In shock Rumple fell back in the other direction, but his head didn’t hit the floor.  He was caught, buoyed up by the strange dog-like ottoman and nudged, not ungently into a sitting position. 

Then the wet tassel-snout came snuffling around him.  Rumple stayed perfectly still as the knotted part nuzzled up against his ribs.  Against his better judgement he put his arm around it, like one would a friendly pet and was rewarded by the thumping of a longer, tail-like tassel on the other side. 

“You can talk!” he said to the fire.

A mantelclock with a semblance of a human face oddly superimposed on its clock face peered down from its height on the mantelpiece, the numbers “10” and “2” scrunched up in an expression of sarcastic scorn.  “Hmph, this one catches on fast doesn’t he?”

“Oh take no notice of Cogs, he’s always grumpy,” clucked a maternal voice.  Rumple’s gaze swivelled to the teapot on the wheely cart. 

“Always grumpy,” confirmed the little chipped teacup sitting beside her on the tray in a higher pitched child-like voice.  

“Now I just bet you’d like something a little more nourishing that whatever gruel it is you just had here am I right? Why don’t you just follow us down and we’ll show you the kitchen and the rest of the place?” she suggested as if it was the most reasonable thing in the world.

“I’d love that, but I’m hardly d-d-decent,” Rumple stammered.   “Have you anything around?  A few spare rags a fellow like me could wear?  I don’t think the Dark Lady would take kindly to me dragging her lovely bear skin through the castle.”


“Hmm, let’s see what we can do—“ whistled the teapot.  “But introductions first, m’dear.  I’m Mrs. Potts, housekeeper of this castle and this here is my son, Chip.”

“’Evening!” chirped Chip.

“Lumos is the fellow down there in the fireplace—“

“Enchante—“ bowed the fire in the grate.

“Does he stay there all the time?” Rumple couldn’t help asking questions in spite of himself.

“Oh no, he can travel to any fire in the castle, just as Cogs here can manifest himself in any timepiece on the grounds.”

“I wish you wouldn’t call it that,” grumbled the clock, “manifest, like a bloody apparition!” 

“Oh don’t mind him, he just woke up on the wrong side of the Prime Meridian.  Now let’s see what we can do about scrounging up some clothes for you.”

There was a sparkle like mineral dust in the air and suddenly the sheets were twisting themselves off the bed and the long curtains off the windows.  Rumple coughed in the dust, but barely had time to blink before he found the material, held by no earthly hands that he could discern, wrapping itself around him, circling his arms and legs and the narrow width of his chest, stretching him out, lifting him to stand.

“Help please!  What’s going on?” he protested in vain as the bed linens transformed themselves into a shirt, small clothes and stockings—the tailor in him appreciating how it seemed toall  be of one piece with no seams at all.  Then the faded velvet curtains, with their deep claret colour and white fleur de lise motif shed the hooks that had held them onto the curtain rods, like a dog shaking off a spray of water.  He watched amazed as the material, folded, scrunched, split and stretched as Mrs. Potts muttered about her hopelessness with modern fashion.  Pieces separated off until he could discern the clear shape of a jacket and pair of breeches.

Terrified of these apparently haunted items of apparel he huddled even tighter under his thick fur blanket, but there was no stopping the castle servants’ impressive powers of hospitality.  The clothing flew at him, like hawks diving into a field to catch their prey, swiftly encasing him before he had an opportunity to squirm away, shirts popping over his head and breeches sliding up his thighs with an alarming show of independence, hems and collars adjusting to his height and length without a tailor in sight to take them in. 

It was the lack of physical tailors to make the alternations, more than anything that astonished him, this being the human endeavor he was most knowledgeable about. Seeing the fabric buckled and stretched to fit him before his eyes, made it perfectly clear that whatever magic he was dealing with here was very very powerful.

In the weeks that would follow in Dark Castle of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, even when talking clocks, fires and china pots weren’t in view, just touching the sleeve of his own jacket, which still retained its thick, curtain style fabric and overlarge fleur de lis pattern was a constant remind that all that surrounded him was indeed magic, and, more importantly that it was all real.  Rumplestilskin hadn’t survived as a slave for as long as he had without reason.  A clever man, he knew would tread carefully in this place, and quietly too. 

Unfortunately, as it turned out, that wasn’t an option he had. 

Chapter Text

“Alright, now you can follow us downstairs without fear of shame.  Look lively now, we don’t have all day.  Who knows when the mistress might pop ‘round and—“

“Wait—I—might need some—“  Rumple made a grasping motion with his hand as if holding a stick.  “Stick of some kind, or two  if you have a couple?  Only if it’s not be too much trouble.”   

Actually back before he’d come to the castle he hadn’t had one.  When the damage to his foot became too great for him to walk easily they just gave him a small pallet of straw and a bucket to do his business beside the spinning wheel.  As long as he could sit and work, whether he could walk outside the little barn without assistance was of no concern to his owners.  The other slaves helped him out when they could, but he was always so ashamed to ask to be helped outside and worried what would happen if any of the overseers took notice of him, that he seldom voiced the question.  Only at night did he dare creep over to the little open window in the barn to watch the moon and stars come out.  He breathed in the scent of moist grass and remembered playing in the dew speckled fields as a boy, the smell of the fresh grass and tree bark after the rain.

“Well he’ll be useless as a proper house servant,” pronounced Cogs.  “Told you that’s not what she wanted him for.”

Rumple really wished they’d stop talking about him as if he was still asleep or couldn’t understand them. 

“Per’aps she haz fallen madly in love with him and wants him for her boudoir!” said Lumos with a flourish of sparks.

“Pish and tish,” tutted Cogs.  “You know if she needed a servant of the flesh she could’ve picked one with a more appealing odor or at least someone whose face wasn’t composed almost entirely of nose.  Though she is odd in her ways, I’ll give her that.”

“Cogs you’re the absolute definition of horrid!”  admonished Mrs. Potts.  “I think he looks sweet.  All the poor dear needs is a little feeding up and a good soak in the tub.  Maybe someone to be kind and gentle with him for once instead of—“

“He’s not a stray dog for you to coddle you know.   The mistress never does anything without a purpose and she’s going to want us not to interact with him until she establishes some proper rules and regulation surrounding his upkeep and purpose here.” 

“Well listen to you, Mr. Official-brown noser,” puffed Mrs. Potts.

“Why mademoiselle Potts, how unladylike an observation!” said Lumos. “I must admit I do concur.” 

“Et tu Lumos?”

 “Here—“ Lumos gestured with a sweep of a fiery hand.  “Take some pokers from my fire.” 

Rumple stared.  Why did the sight of the awful black metal things make him physically sick to his stomach? He himself had never been branded, but he’d seen them do it to others.  Still, it wasn’t just that, there was something about the metal implements that made his skin itch and his scalp crawl. 

“Please—I c-can’t.  I can’t have those--” he stammered as the black sticks floated threateningly closer. 

“What?  Why?”

 “Jeez Lumos you really are an idiot! How do you expect him to move around with those heavy things, look at those scrawny arms, he could barely lift Mrs. Potts to serve tea let alone two full size iron pokers,” humphed Cogs.

“Oh, yes, my apologies, it’s been so long since we were human that—Well once we get you downstairs we’ll see what we can find.”

“Amateurs,” scolded Cogs.  “As head butler I believe this is my purvey. Stay put and I’ll be back in a tic.”

 “And I believe zat’s our cue!” sang Lumos and his fiery face disappeared from the grate in a puff of ash. 

Mrs. Potts gave a cough and a sigh.  “Thirty years and he still forgets not to do that!” Chip hovered over her with a tea towel to clean off the worst of the smudges.  “He so loves to wind Cogs up, he does,” she said with a shake of her lid.

“A clock joke!  I’ll have to save that one for the next time he calls me hot-headed,” laughed Chip. 

“Now that’s enough Chip.  Otto!” whistled Mrs. Potts, and the Ottoman leapt up and under Rumple.  “Now you’ve ridden a horse bareback before haven’t you me lad?” she asked Rumple.

“Uh—“ to tell the truth the closest thing he’d ever got was being allowed on another child’s pony as a six year old. 

“Straddle the beast and hang on tight to his mane!” she directed him, with a wave of her spout.

Rumple look around for some kind of mane, but ended up grabbing the ottoman’s front tassel as the closest thing available.  “Now what?”

“Now you tell him ‘Otto, downstairs—‘ He understands that much, whether a dog or piece of furniture—“

“Ot-tto,” said Rumple uncertainly, his voice cracking on the syllables, “Downstai—“

But before he could even finish the word, Otto the canine ottoman was off like a shot with Rumple bumping up and down on his back, hanging on for dear life to the front tassel, while the back tassel thrashed around behind him, like a tail wagging with doggy happiness.

Otto flew out the door down the hall to the landing.

“Wait, wait!”  cried a terrified Rumple, but this apparently wasn’t a direction it understood.  Rumple closed his eyes tight as they rushed towards the stairs. 

BUMP BUMP BUMP and more bumps.  As the air whooshed past his cheeks he felt his heart leap into his mouth. 

And then just as suddenly, squat wooden chair legs were skittering along the marble floor below.  Rumple opened his eyes to find they had landed securely on the main floor and were bouncing off in a slightly more sedate fashion towards the enticing smells of the kitchen. 

Chapter Text

Belle heard a slight shifting of the gears in the clock on the mantle of her laboratory. A face appeared in the clock, a nose growing quickly out of the round circle where the minute and hour hand were affixed to, numbers two and eleven morphing into eye-like shapes.

“Cogs, is it dinner already?”

“Past Madame,” the butler, with his patented gravitas.

“What are we having then?”

“Cook had whipped up a delicious kidney pie and venison stew with a side dish of lemon risotto and a chocolate gateau with raspberry crumble for desert.”

“Hmm, well I am quite busy testing the metal of this chain with a variety of magical solvents. Perhaps it might be better if I just ported it up.” She extended her hand to prepare for a magical teleportation, the purple light of her power glowing in her palm moving down towards her fingers for the release of the spell, when---

“No, no no, Mistress—“

“What?”

“Um, I said had whipped up because, there was, um, a slight problem.”

“A slight problem? How could there be a problem? This castle runs on magic, don’t tell me the food was burnt because I won’t—“

“Your prisoner my lady—“

“He’s awake,” she finished for him.

“It appears so.”

She gripped the edge of the table an unfamiliar emotion sweeping over her, fear, anger… excitement?

It really had been too long since anything had stirred up her routine, since any puzzle had truly challenged her vast mental resources in the least. Still, if the peasant had touched any of her priceless treasures…

“What has he done?” she asked, letting anger colour her voice.

“Um,” the little pendulum in the belly of the clock bobbed up and down as Cogs gave an anxious gulp. “Ate most of your supper?”

 

XXXXXXX

 

Cogs’s clock face emerged silently back into the kitchen to look over the terrible spectacle.

The “guest” had eaten most of the mistress’s dinner, although where he could have possibly stored it in his scrawny, underfed body, Cogs had no idea. Perhaps he was completely hollow?

Not only had he eaten it, he hadn’t even used any of the appropriate silverware. Cogs shuddered as he watched this Rumplestilskin upstart lick gelatinous raspberry smears off his fingers with a disturbingly long tongue, that brought to his mind the image of a lizard.

“I d-d-don’t think I’ve been this full since I was a lad!” Rumple smiled, looking up from his meal.

“You have raspberry on your nose!” laughed little Chip.

Rumple glance at his wobbly reflection in a shiny metal plate. “Oooh, I suppose I do,” he laughed and rubbed it off, leaving a great red smear across one of the mistress’s fine linen napkins.

“And I suppose you’re pleased with y’self are you?” humphed Cogs. “Having eaten your hostess’s supper and dirtied her dishes and linen. Some guest you are!”

“Oh dear!” Rumple’s face fell. “I didn’t know. What am I going to do?”

“Oh don’t fret so!” said Mrs. Potts with a sharp glance at Cogs. “Belle eats maybe a quarter of this food every night and the rest gets vapourized since none of us eat. Being a tea kettle really does a number on one’s appetite you see.”

“There’s still the matter of the mess,” said Cogs sourly.

“Well that’s no problem,” said Rumple with a small smile. “I’ll just tidy it up. I mean look at the cobwebs in the corners and the limescale all over that sink. I used to do a lot of cleaning back when I was a---“ He stopped short of saying slave. The word still made him feel ashamed and he wasn’t sure if his new friends were aware of his origins. Best he not tell them, or they might treat him differently, he thought. “A house servant,” he finished. “I would really like a chance to earn my keep around here.”

“Hmmm, well you might at least try to look the part,” grumbled Cogs with a grudging glance at Rumple’s shoes. “But you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, I suppose.”

Rumple looked down in dismay. After raiding the completely mud free “servants’ mud room” downstairs with Lumos’s help he’d found a serviceable pair of black leather shoes with tarnished brass buckles that fit perfectly, on his good foot anyway. Even with the application of the servants’ household magics, the only thing that would stay on the other foot was a woman’s satin dancing slipper with long lacy ribbons that criss-crossed up the calf. He discovered the lacing ribbons were actually quite helpful for holding the shoe in place and was actually quite pleased with the result. This mismatched pair were the first real shoes Rumple had worn in years, since before he’d been brought to the Duke in fact, when his father pawned the old wooden soled ones his aunts had bought him. When his outfit was completed with a pair of spiffy, but quite functional gold handled walking sticks they’d found languishing in a cracked umbrella stand Rumple had thought his get-up quite smart. Obviously he still had a long way to go.

He did so want to at least try to look the part of respectable caretaker and servant for such a large and distinguished estate. But who was he kidding if he couldn’t even convince a talking clock? The situation was hopeless. And after everyone had been so nice to him too!

Rumple put his face in his hands, his shoulders slumped with defeat.

Suddenly, he felt the cool touch of porcelain on his cheek. “There, there now,” crooned Mrs. Potts’s friendly voice. “Don’t listen to that old grump. You’re going to do fine! After all, you have us to help you now.”

“I guess,” answered Rumple uncertainly.

“Now, let’s have a think a figure out what you could do to make the Mistress happy?”

“Maybe she’ll feel better if I clean up a bit.!”

“There now that’s the ticket!” cheered Mrs. Potts. “Chip, why don’t you give him a hand with the supplies, you need the practice.”

“Sure Momma!” Chip found it a little more difficult to use magic than the adults around him did. Scrunching his eyes up and squeezing his tiny porcelain body down with effort until he looked more like a plate than a cup, he gave a little hiccup, and then in a flash, a series of cleaning implements popped into existence around the sink.

“Well done Chip!” applauded Lumos with two flaming candlesticks. “You know I’ve never seen him move that many objects at once before!”

“I never had cause,” smiled Chip shyly.

Energized by his new friends’ show of confidence, Rumple pushed himself up and made his way over to the water pump and sink.

It was only much later that Rumple realized that far from creating liquid soap from mid-air, Chip had taken a shortcut. Only years later did, Rumple recognize the purple sea sponges and personal collection of shampoos and bubble baths as expenisve objects belonging to Belle’s toiletry items. But at that moment Rumple was blissfully unaware as Chip, Lumos and Mrs. Potts passed him the dirty pots and dishes with their magic. He was pleased to discover he could keep both hands free, standing up for as long as he wanted, with the helpful addition of a chair to rest his right knee on.

In time he got into a rhythm washing the dishes. With Mrs. Potts an Lumos heating the water and Chip jumping in and out of the sink like a child in a swimming pond, Rumple soon found himself quite merry indeed and so, when Mrs. Potts and Chip began to sing a silly children’s ditty, he found himself naturally joining in.

Belle gazed down the stairwell to the kitchen as, for the first time in centuries, the song “Froggie Came A-Courting and he did Ride” assailed her ears and shook her head in amazement. Even as the scents of her favourite soap and bubble bath emerged from the steamy air coming out of the kitchen she couldn’t really dredge up the necessary indignation the situation required.

Instead she lingered just beyond the doorway, in shadow where the little group in the kitchen couldn’t see her, her head cocked like a curious cocker spaniel’s and listened.

How in the world had she chosen to invite such chaos into her well ordered world? Why did a simple children song suddenly make her feel awake for the first time in years?

Chapter Text

Rumple, Lumos, Mrs. Potts and Chip were singing and washing up in the kitchen.

“The next to come in was a big black sna---“

Suddenly, Chip stopped singing in the middle of a lyric. His eyes darted to the side and he waggled his painted porcelain eyebrows expressively at his mother.

“The Mistress—“ Mrs. Potts mouthed silently to Lumos who was still blithely singing.

He quickly clammed up, too, leaving Rumple’s cracked tenor, the only instrument to carry the melody.

Rumple raised his gaze from a large serving dish, distracted. “What? Why’d you stop?”

Lumos silently motioned one of his candlestick arms over to the doorway behind them.

“Aah—“ Rumple nearly staggered back in distress, luckily remembering he had one knee on a chair, just in time to save himself from an embarrassing spill.

“M’lady.” Edging his knee off the chair, a wet tea cup still held in one hand, the other gripping the ledge of the sink he sketched an awkward bow. It was not meant to be so deep and Rumple had some difficult in rising, the sweat trickling down his back between his shoulder blades at his latest fumble.

A small half-smile flickered momentarily inching up La Belle Dame Sans Merci’s pale white cheek. She hid it quickly though quickly as soon as Rumple raised his head.

“Don’t stop on my account,” she said, in a voice like cool cut glass. The accent was class all the way, thought Rumple, but regionless. She could have been from next door to the Frontlands or a million miles away. Like her dragonscale armour, that covered her up to her neck, her voice gave nothing away, other than power, it’s echoing range, something a little more than the normal human voicebox was capable of.

“May I present Rumplestilskin, your new caretaker—“ announced Lumos, faking confidence Rumple thought he did not possess.

“What’s he wearing?”

“Eh, we thought it pertinent to outfit him for his new duties, Mistress, hence the use of your curtains, and the liberation of a few, um, unused items from the mudroom.”

She walked closer to Rumple as she spoke, something oddly serpentine about her graceful movements.

“Ah, well I suppose he couldn’t go about in those rags he arrived him, certainly wouldn’t add to my status in the community if we had any visitors, now would it?”

“No M’Lady.”

“Although taking two gold handled walking sticks was a little bit greedy, don’t you think?”

“It’s alright, he needs them for walking otherwise he’d just be hopping around and couldn’t do the cleaning. There’s something wrong with his foot—it looks like a dried up leaf and doesn’t do anything. Maybe you could fix him like you mended me when I fell off the shelf?” hinted Chip. “Then he could be better at sweeping and carrying stuff.”

Rumple couldn’t really be angry with the innocent little teacup, not for pointing out the truth in his child-like way, but he still blushed fiercely under the Belle Dame Sans Merci’s gaze. He studied the minute stitches in the monogrammed hem of his new linen shirt, well aware of Belle moving closer, standing right next to him now, her eyes roving over every inch of his meagre person, invading his personal space. He winced as sharp clawed fingers walked themselves down his shoulder, a strong grip stretching out his thin arm turning it this way and that. Every second he braced for those terrifying claws to dig into his flesh and run him through, but though uncomfortably near, she didn’t so much as scratch him.

When she left off touching him, it was odd, but he almost wished she’d continue. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind so much, just a little bit of a scratch. Suddenly, his mind was flying off to old memories, overheard stories in the pubs his father used to frequent with him in tow; stronger men than he would ever be, laughing with bawdy delight, pulling up a rough workshirt to show four thin scrapes on his back, scratches on the sides of his ribs, and even as a child Rumple knew marks of passion when he saw them. “Now that the wife’s with child—by the gods is she gasping for it, all the time every night. Never seen anyting like it. I tell you, if it weren’t for what comes after, I’d get that bird pregnant more often.”

 

Belle quirked an eyebrow at Rumple’s distant gaze, time to bring him back to the room. She grasped his chin in one of her claws, firmly, but without hurting him.

“Hmmmmm… I think I prefer you as you are, won’t have to worry about you running off very far now, will I?”

“Yes M’lady!”

She cocked her head like a slightly bemused parrot. “You mean I WILL have to worry about you running off?”

“No M’lady! Er yes, I mean yes I can’t run off, so no you won’t have to worry, aye. But I—I didn’t mean—I mean, even if I could, I- I wouldn’t, I mean, where would I go? Your servants have clothed and fed me! You gave me a bed to sleep in in your castle and food by the fire and real shoes and sticks to hold myself up again and I won’t be useless to you, I promise! If you let me live, if you let me stay, I’ll make it up to you. I’ll work so hard and—and I’ll never forget. I couldn’t, not ever, even if you didn’t mean it. You and Lumos and Mrs. Potts and Chip and even Cogs—you treated me like a person and helped me and you’re the first one to do anything for me, the first one in forever and don’t think if you let me stay I’ll ever forget!” declared Rumple.

His eyes were wet with tears, but he held them back and closed his mouth not sure where the sudden stream of words had come from. He’d really messed it up now, he thought. It was bad enough to have a lame servant, let alone one with the defect of speaking his mind entirely too freely and yet---

And yet, he wanted her to know—to know that her kindness MATTERED. In this unending ocean of darkness and cruelty that had been his life for far too many years, her generosity was like a beacon of light drawing him up and onward. Her light, bestowed unintentionally, bringing him back to life-- oh, he would run toward it, that light, if only he could.

Chapter Text

“So?” twittered Belle sweeping into the room in a gown with a skirt made of four giant months’ wings and a bustier made out of a single enormous fly thorax. “What do you think?”

Jefferson gave the ensemble a critical once over. “Needs a hat.”

“You always say that.”

“How else do you think I stay in business?” He took a tidy sip of his tea and shrugged.

“Touche.”

“Excellent tea by the way. I was expecting that usual magic brown sludge you put up with, but this is rather nice. I detect notes of—“ he smacked his lips. “Mmmmm, cranberry and cocoa bean if I’m not mistaken.”

Behind the door where he lurked unobtrusively eavesdropping while ostensibly polishing a crystal vase, Rumple blushed with pride. The combination had been his concoction from Belle’s own garden.

“You know,” said Jefferson with a meditative lingering sip, “I don’t think I’ve ever actually been summoned to the dark castle by you before.”

“Hmmmm…” hummed Belle in what she hoped a neutral expression of mild interest.

“It’s always me knocking on your door with something to trade—a favour to request—never in all our history together as—“ he couldn’t quite bring himself to say “friends,” La Belle Dame Sans Merci didn’t have anything so prosaic as friends, but hesitated on the words “business associates.” That sounded too much like equals and might insult her. Colleuges wasn’t quite right either. While they did do business with each other on occasion their association had more to do with the overlapping enemies they shared than anything else. He decided on “collaborators” as the least likely term to give offense.

“Never in our history as collaborators have you summoned me yourself.”

“Is that so?” She stirred her tea languidly in its cup.

“And I’ve been itching to know why,” he continued. “Why an enchanted and between ourselves, rather Chatty Cathy, carriage practically dragged me here making me think I’d arrive to find the whole place ablaze and your garden lain to waste and not only do I arrive to find not a stone out of place, but apparently you’ve hired on new help! I know I have no right to ask you dearest sphinx for an explanation, but I’m just a shade perplexed.”

“Well, don’t get your knickers in a knot. I just wanted your opinion about something.”

“I already told you, the dress—“

“Honestly Jefferson, really?”

“What?”

“That’s too cute. You think I give a fig what anyone thinks about what I wear after all these years? I’m the bloody Belle Dame Sans Merci. I wear whatever I like and people are too busy being petrified, knocking their knees in fear of my terrifying reptilian visage to notice my appreciation for fine tailoring.”

“I notice.”

“And that is why dearest Hatter, you are one in a million.”

“Trues of course, but what do you wish my opinion for my lady? If it’s the tea then—“

“Not the tea, the one who made it.”

“Ah, your new caretaker. Like I said, he makes a good cuppa.”

“He answered the door, took your coat and you followed him in to my parlour. You had time to look at him. Anything that stood out as peculiar in your eyes?

“Nothing sinister, I just wondered why you would hire a lame butler, that’s all.”

She shrugged, an elegant, almost serpentine motion of scaled shoulders. “Maybe I like to keep people waiting. Also, as you said, he makes good tea. Anything else stand out about him? Anything, mmmhhh---how best to say it—supernatural, otherworldly, weird?”

Jefferson snorted. “You can’t be serious! I mean he sounds like a Frontlands peasant, common as dirt on the ground in the right environment, nothing unusual. Why are you asking me? Shut my mouth!” He put his cup and saucer down on the table with a clatter. “Don’t tell me he’s the secret heir to the throne of Misthaven or something! Because good lord, if that’s the case then have you got your work cut out for you”!

Belle laughed, the sound like many sets of dissonant bells tinkling, high pitched and out of time, otherworldy and weird. It made even Jefferson, the hardened adventurer of a thousand dimensions shiver.

“Oh you are too ridiculous! What plays have you been attending I’d like to know! I’m asking because you’re the only person I know who has travelled to the other realms, journey into untold new worlds through countless dimensions unknown. You would know, if no one else does-- does he look, smell or sound anything like people do in any of those other places you’ve been to?”

“You are asking me if he is something more or less than a normal human from this world.”

“You said his accent sounds like a Frontlands peasant. Rack your brains, are you absolutely certain it couldn’t be anything else?”

“Why?”

“If I tell you I’ll have to bind the words to you.”

“Come now we’ve known each other for how long? When have I betrayed you? You can trust me!”

“And I do, but I have many enemies. They have powers to extract the information from you, even if you don’t wish to disclose it. If I bind the words to you, you will not be able to speak what I tell you to another living soul as long as you live. Then only I will be able to unbind the words and extract the secret from you. Do you consent to the binding?”

“When you make it sound so comfortable how could I demure?” he asked sarcastically. “I assume you will have a task for me, one that I’ll be handsomely rewarded for if I consent to this?”

“Yes.”

“Then fine, I consent.”

“Jefferson Madden, walker between dimensions, heir to the hat historic of Wonderland, I bind thee by this name and all others you may possess, until such time as I release you from your secret, agreed?” She spoke the incantation rapidly.

“Agreed,” he said and bowed his head.

A brief sparkle of gold left her finger tips and flew across the room towards him. Before he had a chance to recant his vow it found him, darted between his parted lips and slipped down his gullet, feeling warm and vaguely cinnamon tasting, like a sip of hot tea.

“My apologies,” she said with a nervous gesture of the hands. Distantly, he reflected how characteristic this was of her, to appear uncomfortable with these small, intimate displays of magic performed in private in ways she never seemed to be in public, with her grand sweeping gestures and large acts of magic. “But it was necessary to protect myself.”

“From him?”

“Possibly, but the more I grow to know him, sense his lack of animosity towards me, the more I feel the danger would likely arise from those who’d find a way to use him against me. Once they know the monster’s weakness who knows what they’ll think they can do?” She called herself “monster” flippantly and bared her pointed teeth in a self-deprecating grin at him, but there was something in the gesture that almost made him feel sad for her.

Her weakness…

Looking up over the rim of the teacup Jefferson’s gaze softened as he looked at her face, her attention distracted by something at the bottom of her teacup, her expression for once unguarded. There seemed something gentler about her cutting remarks today, though perhaps he was just imagining it. The bronze scales on her face which denoting the place of eyebrows in a mere mortal, turned down in incipient ferocity just as much as they always had and yet, here she was, admitting that this simple man, common as dirt, was her weakness. How was that possible? What was the only weakness someone as powerful as her could ever have? Love. That had been his. Love for his wife. Then love his daughter. Hadn’t the Queen of Hearts told him as much—love is weakness. It let them have something to hold over your head. He of all people should know.

“You love him,” he marvelled out loud to her. “You’re worried someone might kidnap him to try to draw you out and trap you.”

“What?” she laughed, no longer like tinkling bells, but like the twittering of an entire flock of starlings greeting the dawn. “Are you mad? No, no no don’t answer that, I already know. Jefferson, I always figured you for a romantic, but that’s a bit of a stretch even for you. La Belle Sans Merci doesn’t DO love. But…” and here she drummed her sharp black talons upon the table. “He does seem to confound my magic. Somehow, whatever magic I try to perform upon his person backfires on me. Other spells I try to execute-- just with him in the general vicinity go wrong, teleports winding up off target, that sort of thing. Nothing I can do through magic can touch him.”

“Which is why you have a limping butler. You can’t fix whatever’s wrong with him.”

“Ah, and there’s another mystery. I discovered him as a slave. While I released the others using magic, my spells didn’t work to release him. Initially I thought his shackle was cursed or contained some sort of poison that had seeped into his flesh and damaged him over time. But I tested the shackle, the chain, the leg iron and all the rest of the apparatus and could detect not the faintest trace of magic. It was a perfectly ordinary piece of iron without a single spell upon it. Which lead me to the conclusion that it’s nothing to do with the shackle, but with the man himself. He is something I can’t classify, something I’ve never encountered before and I want you to find out what he is— and then perhaps if there are more of his kind, and they are not so benign as he is, then I can discover some way to protect myself and my magic.”

“Aaaalright, how do you propose I do this? Have you tried just asking him what he is where he comes from?”

“Of course,” she tapped irritably on the table. “Administer truth serum was the first thing I did, but even that—it doesn’t seem to be processed by his body the same way you or I would process it. I think he was telling me the truth about all he knew of his origins, and yet—I couldn’t help but feel there was something—something missing if you know what I mean?”

“Not really.”

“Let’s face the facts. I’m supposedly a demon from your worst nightmares according to most humans, not the ideal confidante by any stretch of the imagination. Why would he tell me anything at all of his own volition? The moment I walk into a room people feel threatened, dogs’ hackles rise. But you? You’re handsome, you’re charming, a little eccentric perhaps, but still a regular, relatable guy.”

“Ah my Lady you flatter me, but don’t forget the realm-jumping through the magic hat bit.”

“Well yes, but other than the hat thing, I was just thinking that …. Maybe, maybe he’d talk to you. He’s so quiet with me and—“

“So you want me to take him out to a tavern, get him stinking and hope he’ll confess the secret of his anti-magic while drunk?”

“Um, okay, if that’s how you want to do it, but I really think it might work best if you spent a little time with him. He’s been maltreated, you see, so he’s rather skittish. It takes a while to earn his trust.”

“And if it doesn’t work?”

“Well, I have an assignment I might send you two off on. Nothing requiring too complicated magic, only a bit of shrinking mushroom and some talent with a needle and thread. I believe you have the requisite funghi and skill.”

“That I do, but what justification would you have for letting him tag along with me?”

“Mmmm… he might be a bit of a needle and thread man himself.”

“You don’t say.”

Chapter Text

 

Jefferson went out to the terrace overlooking the garden with La Belle Dame Sans Merci.  Exotic foliage of a thousand worlds spread out beneath them and birds unheard of in natural local forests sang from the high boughs of the trees that grew beside the steps he would have to descend to the garden.   Though,  “deadly jungle compressed into  single half-acre of land” might be a more apt expression than merely “garden” for it.

“He’s down there?”

“Of course.”

“Aren’t you a little concerned about him, what with all the carnivorous plants around?"   "Oh, he’s a grown man, he can take care of himself.  Really, I’ve had to rescue him from the Venusian Mega-fauna section only once.  For all their fearsome reputation, the flytraps are rather undiscerning, not having eyes or a brain you see.  They merely digested his clothes and left him unharmed if a little shaken.”

Jefferson’s wasn’t sure what to think about that. Picturing the caretaker falling naked to the ground, emitted by a slimy belch from Venusian Mega-Flytrap, right in front of the most powerful sorceress in the land, he felt acutely self-conscious for the obviously shy man, despite having never even been in the vicinity when the incident occurred.  Belle, had that effect on people he supposed, made you check to make sure your undergarments weren’t suddenly on the outside for some reason. “How do you suggest I proceed with him?” he asked her. 

She trailed a black talon through the water of a bird bath on the terrace.  He knew it was a bird bath because dozens of birds had been bathing in its crystal waters when they opened the double doors to go outside.  He had noticed more than once, taking tea with her in the courtyard outdoors that the moment birds spied La Belle Dame Sans Merci, or even sensed she was close they fled her presence. 

“Silly things,” she laughed as she watched them fly away over the treetops, pointed teeth gleaming in the sunlight. “I’ll chalk it up to their nasty habit of consorting with fairies.  You know how those damned creatures talk.  As to how you’ll proceed with him, and by that I assume with my reticent caretaker, well,” she gave an eloquent shrug.   “You’re creative, I’m sure you’ll think of something.  Enjoy the garden. “ She waved her hand and the smoke of teleportation began to envelope her, “Just don’t touch the roses.”

“What happens if I--?”  but by then she was gone.

Jefferson walked down the winding garden path, further into Belle’s artificially created jungle. Though there was no glass to suggest a greenhouse, somehow she had contrived to keep the humidity levels unpleasantly sticky for someone dressed in a top hat, thick cravat and wool lined coat.  Folding his coat over his arm, Jefferson rolled up his shirt sleeves and opened his brightly coloured plaid vest.  For someone who took pains to cultivate the aura of being at home in a thousand realms he felt uncharacteristically uncomfortable.

Over the hum of insects and the twittering of birds, came the distinct sounds of Frontlands curse words, muttered in the characteristic peasant accent.  If the caretaker really was from another world, Jefferson thought, his act was flawless.  Now what had been that dratted man’s name?  Now that he thought about it he wondered if La Belle Dame Sans Merci had even mentioned it.  Typical her.  Did he know any common Frontlands names?  Hector?  Robert? James? Fernando?  Alloyious?   No, none of those seemed right. 

But before he could figure it out, the path took an unexpected bend, (one he could’ve sworn hadn’t been there before), and Jefferson came directly upon the caretaker in question or rather, under him.

Ascending to the heights of the second story of the dark castle was a complex scaffolding structure.  Dizzyingly tall poles of criss-crossed bamboo sticks supported climbing plants with large leaves the size of a human hand.  Jefferson saw enormous pea pods, the length of his forearm clustered around the tops of the vines, heavy with mature peas, each the size of a small fist.  

Strangest of all, hovering up there among the giant pea pods, kneeling on a fully mature, unbelievably rare Agrabanian four-tasselled carpet, was the caretaker, with a straw basket on his back, hands encased in thick leather gloves, wielding a huge pair of pruning shears.   As Jefferson watched the caretaker cut one of the pea pods off.  He caught it nimbly in one gloved hand as it fell, tossed it into the straw basket on his back in one fluid motion, while still making sure to pull back the carpet with his other hand.  In a practiced motion the caretaker and carpet-creature dodged as a strange whip-like vine emerged from the oozing part of the stem where he had made the cut.  It uncurled and sprang out with a terrible SNAP to whip the air where the caretaker had been not a moment before.

Not expecting this Jefferson jumped back and screamed, stumbling over some trailing roots lying on the path behind him.  He fell in an undignified heap on the flagstones.  Distracted by the sound, the caretaker looked down.  When the whip-like vine snapped again he only managed to dart back in time to avoid the brunt of its force.  The tip of the pale whip still managed to flick the caretaker across the cheek, though he seemed not to notice it as he the carpet he knelt on shot down to Jefferson’s level with stomach-dropping speed.

“M-m-master Jefferson,” he stammered.  “Are you—are you alright?”

Chapter Text

XX

“M-m-master Jefferson,” he stammered.  “Are you—are you alright?”

“Fine, fine, nothing injured but my pride and a custom made suit of clothes.” Frankly Jefferson would’ve rather emerged with a slight physical injury, rather than soil his new pair of striped trousers, he’d had specifically tailored for this Belle-visiting occasion, to excentuate his--- now how had the tailor put it--- “glorious bottom.”  Personally, he thought they were a little tight around the waist, but who was he to prove an obstacle to fashion?  To Jefferson’s mind, it was the duty of a haberdasher, milner and closet realm-jumper to serve as a walking advertisement of his wares.  For friends in the garment trade, he provided visibility to their latest styles and they returned the favour, making sure to be seen in all his best, most expensive hats.  It was a complex business, built on reciprocal favours of favours of favours over many years, one that clearly—running his gaze over the caretaker by his side, this particular fellow had never heard of. 

Idly, he wondered, if given some time and several choice bolts of cloth, what sort of ensemble might best suit the caretaker’s meagre form.  It was a game he frequently played in his mind with other people to keep from getting bored, but he did tend to play it at the wrong times, giving him a rather “spaced-out” air to those who didn’t know any better.  In reality he had quite a sharp, if somewhat rambling intellect, but appearances could be deceiving.

“Are you sure you aren’t hurt?” asked the worried caretaker.  From his perch on the floating carpet somewhere above Jefferson’s head he held out a gloved hand.   “Would you let me help you up?”

 

Jefferson let himself be helped back onto his feet, surprised at the unexpected strength in the thin man’s grasp.    Standing now, he withdrew his hand, only to find it sticky with the giant pea plant’s sap.   He tried to brush the gooey mess off on his trousers, only to find his hand stuck on the cloth at his hip.  Undeterred, Jefferson gave his hand a good yank.  There was a tearing sound of popping seams.  He had managed to unstick his hand, but now his trousers were torn up the side. 

“Oh of all the silly--!”  Jefferson exclaimed in frustration.

Rumple cringed away from the shouts, clearly terrified.  “I’m sorry,” his voice wobbled.  “I should’ve warned you.  I d-d-din’t think to—“

“Don’t worry, easily mended.”

 “T-t-terribly sorry.  I—we—the Mistress so rarely have visitors, you took me by surprsie.  Wha—what are you doing here?” he asked, perplexed.  Suddenly, a second thought occurred to him and he blanched down to the tip of his sunburnt nose in fear.   “Belle—the Mistress—is she all right?  What’s happened?  Please, sir is she ill, does she need my help?”

Jefferson cocked his head at the caretaker.  He would’ve laughed at the thought of La Belle Dame Sans Merci, the infamous, immortal Dark Lady, the most powerful user of dark magic their world had seen in thousands of years in need of rescue by this tiny, crippled caretaker, if not for the look in the man’s large brown eyes. There was none of that common male arrogance there, only concern, caring and was that…love?  

It seemed impossible, but Jefferson would’ve bet money on it now—That small, awkward man, would’ve thrown himself at a fire breathing dragon for her, and not because like many a knight, overconfident in his abilities he believed he’d best the beast in combat--he clearly had no illusions on that score—but simply because… he loved her?  Was it possible? 

Although Jefferson had traipsed the boundaries of a thousand realms, inside he was still an ordinary man, with fairly common desires.  What Jefferson possessed that other men did not was an unusually large perspective.  When you have seen the results of the same natural human drives played out again and again against the backdrops of vastly different societies and civilizations by people of every conceivable level of status and power you gain a distance from common emotional entanglements, not enough to change your own fate much, he was the first to admit, but enough to discern patterns, to gain some degree of understanding.   What you lost, unfortunately, was the ability to simply exist in the moment of passion, to go with the flow of lust and love without worrying about the future.  It was difficult to leave all planning at the door where romance was concerned and let things take their natural course.

A person like La Belle Dame Merci, ageless and all powerful, he thought could not be loved in the conventional sense.  She inspired fear and awe on behalf of the populace, yes, perhaps mixed with a dash of the lust for the unattainable, combined with and instinctual envy and hate of such injudiciously bestowed power, wielded by a woman in their male dominated society, but this emotion was not love.  The hatter had gone snark hunting in the innermost forests of Wonderland.  He knew of men who sought out creatures of terrible beauty like the flaming tigress of the High Nile because they wish to possess it, to prove their power, men who would attempt touch the unattainable dragon of heaven and try to tame it and steal its pearls of wisdom for themselves, not to become wise, but simply to prove that they could do it.  Plenty of men had tried to possess Belle, had wished to control her power, and she had delighted in their destruction, but none, as far as he knew had ever loved her. An ordinary person did not, could not love a being like La Belle Dame Sans Merci. He’d always assumed she was above such emotions and had no wish to be brought down to earth by such trivial human attachment. She was the type of woman who liked to keep even her closest friends at a distance.   Even he was wary of getting to close to her.  The worms in her garden soil were testament to the transformative fate that awaited those that overstepped their bounds.  

So this man’s feelings for her, could they be the result of a a glamour then?  It was a common enough usage of magic, but he’d never heard of Belle utilize her power to inspire love or mindless devotion  from someone else.  She’d always seemed hesitant to use her magic to coersce another person, even in the mildest of ways.  The ever-perceptive Hatter had always surmised that there was something more to that hesitancy.  There had to be, when every practitioner of dark magic seemed to take up the wand for that power alone and really, the spells for obedience were some of the easiest to craft and come by.  It had always struck him as odd that she would go out of her way to avoid them, using complicated, convoluted means to achieve a result that could have been had with a single, simple command spell.

Jefferson had long suspected a spell like that might’ve been used on her once, back when she was human-- or perhaps some other method of coercision, even more barbaric, to take from her the one thing she didn’t want to give up.  He knew this about her, that she had been human at one point, long, long ago.  She had been careful to erase the traces of her past, but Jefferson needed to know exactly whom he dealt with.  If he was going to risk his life procuring rare treasures for someone from distant lands, he’d prefer the items not be put to uses he found morally repugnant at a bare minimum. He was not a complete mercenary, after all. 

The little caretaker stared down at Jefferson worriedly from his place on the carpet.   “Mistress Belle--?”

“What, no, she’s fine,” Jefferson dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand.

“Oh, that’s good, um---  I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of making your formal acquaintance.”

“Jefferson the Hatter, realm jumper and haberdasher to the stars, at your service,” said Jefferson with a deep bow and a sweep of his tall top hat from his curling wild hair.  “And you are?”

Rumple blushed at having to recount his ridiculously long name to a stranger.  He tended to alternate between being completely silent and babbling in a frightful rush when nervous.   Jefferson was the first person in human form he’d seen in months since he’d come to work for Belle and so today his introductions came out in a rush: “Um, Rumple, I mean it’s really Rumplestilskin, but everybody says oh that’s a mouthful, which you know, I understand, so people call me Rumple or Rum for short, which is fine too, I don’t mind.  I mean, people used to call me all sorts of really horrid names, the nicer ones just called me Hobblefoot-- which I hated, because I know I have this foot, but it’s not like I enjoy being reminded of it all the time and it’s not my name, not who I actually am, you know? But I was a sla—servant back then for some very unpleasant people, so I didn’t really have much say in the matter and name-calling was really the least of it.  I mean, I’m a kind of servant here too, being the caretaker and all that, but it’s very different, Lady Belle doesn’t treat me like a—I mean she isn’t like my former masters at all and she---“

“I think I get the picture,” said the hatter, his eyes twinkling back up at Rumple.  “You know what?  I think we’re going to have an interesting day together.”

“To-g-gether? Wait, I thought you were going back to--”

“Well, Belle’s gone off on an errand and she thought, since you’ve been here all this time with no one to talk to but the cutlery it might please you to hit the town with me.”

“The town?” the caretaker squeaked almost falling off his carpet.  “Hit the t-t-town--?”

“I mere figure of speech.  I meant, maybe we could take a break from the castle, go for a pint at the pub, check out the market, you know?”

“But I’m not allowed to leave the castle!” Rumple protested.  “What would Belle say if she discovered I’d run away?”

“Nothing, because you’re not going to ‘run away.’  You’re just going with me to the village for some supplies and a friendly beer at the pub and then straight back home.”

“I have to ask Belle, this can’t possibly be alright with her.

Just then, as if on que Belle appeared in a flash of smoke before them.  “Seriously Rumple,” she said, “it’s completely alright. I trust you and Jefferson, as long as you’re together.  Go into the village and listen around at the pub. As you can see, I can’t very well go there myself without terrifying everyone and I do so like to hear the gossip and news about what’s going on in my little town.  Those people are under my protection, you know, and I can’t very well tend to them and protect them if I don’t know what their problems are and they’re not likely to tell me their issues honestly if I appear before them in a cloud of sulfur, staring at them with eyes like a monstrous reptile, wouldn’t you say?”

“Not monstrous,” whispered Rumple faintly,  so that only Jefferson could hear,  “never monstrous.”

“What’s that?” asked Belle, brow furrowed.

Oh, he’s got it bad, thought Jefferson.   Who’s going to break it to the poor fellow?  “He says he’s totally up for it,” replied Jefferson, “but was just wondering if we could take the carriage.”

“By all means,” Belle answered with a generous wave of her hand.  “Chatty Cathy’s out in the front drive. Aurevoir.” she waved of her other hand and vanished in a swirl of smoke once again.

Rumple’s eyes goggled out angrily at Jefferson as the smoke dispersed, all display of servile politeness gone.   “Why’s she suddenly want me to leave?   What’s happening here?  You—you put her up to this.  I can’t—I can’t leave the castle!” 

“Woah there, you shouldn’t be mad!  In fact you should be thanking me!  I just handed you your get out of jail free card!”

“What’s a get out of jail free card?”

“Sometimes one forgets, this realm has never heard of Milton Bradley.” 

“Who’s Milton Bradley?” 

“Forget I mentioned it.  Honestly though, I don’t see why you have to get your back up.”

“Because this isn’t a jail!”

“But I thought you were forbidden to leave.”

“So what? It doesn’t make it—“

 “Even a palace can be a prison if you’re not free to come and go if you please.  Don’t you want to make your own choices?”

“PFfT!  Shows what you know!   That—out there!  That world’s the prison!”

Chapter Text

“PFfT!  Shows what you know!   That—out there!  That world’s the prison!  People take advantage of you out there if you’re—if you’re—“

“An escaped slave?” suggested Jefferson.

Rumple’s eyes flashed angrily.  “I was going to say ‘if you’re poor.’ You think that’s all I am? Honestly, you look at me and think I was always the way I am now?  I was born a freeman, just like you, the only difference being I was born poor.”

“My dear fellow, you don’t know me.  I hardly grew up in a castle. “

Rumplestilskin’s voice suddenly took on a different tone.  The obsequious cowering quavering high pitched tone was gone.  As he spoke now his voiced grew deeper, each word bit off like some hard flavourless biscuit, all the rarely expressed fury Rumple had always felt about his fate in life compressed itself into a near-snarl;  “But you didn’t grow up like me.  Didn’t grow up small, ‘cause you never had enough to eat. Didn’t have to spend part of your life as someone else’s property because your father was so in debt he had to sell his own son.  You weren’t never owned body and soul by a master, with no say over where you went or what happened to you, mistreated until your body broke, until all that was left was a crippled shell.  You never had everything taken from you, your body, your mind, your very freedom, by someone you trusted, somebody you loved.”

Those last words echoed in Jefferson’s mind as Rumple suddenly fell silent.  In truth Rumple had shocked himself to find his own voice speaking the thoughts he had only ever entertained in his own mind out loud to this stranger and instantly wished he could take them back.

They both moved silently onward, afraid to look at one another.  The only sound to be heard, the drone of bees in the flowers and slight swish of fabric as the carpet-creature Rumple rode, hovered along beside Jefferson on the cobblestone path.

“How do you know?” said Jefferson at last, his voice faint as if coming from far away.

“How do I know what?” asked Rumple. 

“How do you know I didn’t have everyone taken from me, by someone who professed to love me?  How do you know I was not betrayed? Do not presume to tell me you know all the ways a ruthless person might exercise to break a body and soul and yet take pains to make it look like nothing had been broken.” 

Rumple stared at the hatter unsure of what he was talking about.  He had a tendency to talk, almost as if in riddles, speaking around a thing, without diving directly into it.  Once, a very long time ago he had known a seer who spoke in similar fashion.  As Rumple thought of her, her strange blue eyes that seemed to hover before him even now, he shivered and distracted himself by looking directly at Jefferson as the hatter unwound the scarf from around his neck.

It was a beautiful thing, that scarf, all made of brightly coloured patchwork pieces, some glittering with patterns of gold or silver, some velvety soft to the touch, some satin, some inlaid with tiny mirrors that winked in the light as he unwound them, others embroidered with minute depiction of exotic birds and curling clouds of strange design—a marvelous thing, the careful, tidy creation of hard work and nimble hands-- a thing to catch the eye, to make the attention linger on tiny details.  To distract, Rumple now saw, from the ruined of the neck beneath. 

A deep ragged gash ran clear around the hatter’s neck, or more accurately right through, a scar almost as wide as the palm of his hand.  And now that Rumple could see it more closely he could tell that whatever magic had affixed the chopped through neck back together again-- because it had to be magic, no bone setter he’d ever seen could fix that-- it hadn’t been able to undo all the damage—for beside the dreadful beheading scar, Jefferson’s head had been put back on his body just slightly off kilter, so that he always had to turn his torso ever so slightly to one side to allow his chin to appear in alignment with the midline of his body, a feat that went mostly unnoticed by other people.  It was also the reason that he never quite seemed to manage to look anyone in the eyes and why his opinions often tended to be just slightly off kilter, along with his eyeline. From his vantage point you could see the absurdity and ridiculous in almost anything if you just looked.

 Rumple let out of whoosh of breath he hadn’t noticed he was holding in. 

 “I had a daughter once, a wife,” said Jefferson with as much emotion as if he was discussing a pair of galoshes he’d once owned.  It was an illusion of course, much the like scarf.  He had trained his voice over the years to sound flippant rather than betray the slightest emotion.  He knew from bitter experience now that to even broach the edge of the well of his sorrow was an invitation to madness, to the unending abyss of despair that would suck him in and rob him of months of better spent effort.

“Where are they now?”

“Where do you think?  Lost, taken, dead, who knows?”  He shrugged as if it was all the same to him. 

“Sometimes  I don’t know what’s worse,  the days I despair or the days I feel hopeful.”

“How does that make sense?”

“When I hope I know I have to keep working, that I can never rest, even for a minute.  I have to keep realm-jumping, traveling and traveling until I find them or I die, whichever happens first.  And then when I inevitably fail—well then you see, the despair is all the worse,”  said the hatter and gave a rather disconcerting giggle.

“And that’s why you began working for Belle?” asked Rumple.

“Hmmm, not at first,” responded the hatter, thoughtful as he rewound the amazing scarf around  the horror of his neck.  “You see all this traveling and seeking for clues is not without its expenses, and then there’s locator magics and hat fuel—“

“Hat fuel?”

“Raw magic in liquid form, exceedingly rare.  It’s not a cheap process.  Belle has requests for objects that she needs from other realms.  I go there and get them.  Whatever else I’m about while I’m there is my own business as long as I deliver the goods.  And there’s the small matter of revenge on the person who did this to me--  Belle’s been immeasurably helpful in that regard.  You might consider taking up something in that line.  If you’ve been  wronged as you say, then  you certainly have just cause and I wouldn’t imagine Belle would charge you much, seeing how much you do for her without pay as it is.”

“No revenge—well, it wouldn’t work.”

“Eh?   And how’s that?  Don’t you want to stop whoever did this to you before they get a chance to do it to someone else?”

“What if it’s not just one person?  What if it’s a whole world of people, a system that keeps people in chains that none of them started but no one is seriously trying to stop.  What if it’s a world that thinks it’s okay to say a whole bunch of people are just rubbish for no reason, to write them off and never give them a chance to be heard or make a difference in the way things are run.  If I killed the man who bought me and the slave sellers who chained me what real difference would it make?  There are thousands to take their place ready to chain and sell others.”

“Yes, but the person who did that to you would be gone and you’d be free.”

“Free to do what?  Work in the fields when I can’t walk?”

“Well maybe not that—“

“Teach in a university when I have no formal education?” 

“I was told you could sew.”

“I can,” offered Rumple sitting taller on his perch on the carpet-creature.

“Then tailoring perhaps?”

“And would you take me on as an apprentice?  At my age?  A tailor's apprentice has to be nimble, to move swiftly around whatever person has come in to be measured. How would I do that? Not to mention, even if I could, knowing I might be an escaped slave with a master still on the hunt for me-- who would ever hired me? ”

“Hum. I see your point.”

“Look Hatter, I’m not a fool.  I know exactly where I’d end up if I left the employ of La Belle Dame sans Merci.  A traveling beggar, rejected and shunned from one town to the next, trying to survive on the kindness of strangers, beat up and robbed on the highways and tossed in every duke’s cells whenever the next ‘clean-up the streets’ initiative came through.  Trust me, I know exactly where I fall in the pecking order out there.”  Rumple waved dismissively at the world beyond the ivy covered walls around Belle’s palace.   “Not interested.”

Chapter Text

And yet, somehow, despite professing himself uninterested, that very night Rumple found himself bumping along the road in Chatty Cathy with Jefferson, wondering how he got there.

“Now make sure to make use of those blankets, now, I had them just cleaned and put in this morning” Cathy advised, clucking like a mother hen over her charges.

Rumple dutifully pulled a plaid blanket up over his legs, as the carriage hummed her approval.

“And you’’ll be wanted one to go around your shoulders too Mr. Jefferson,” she cooed over the Hatter.

“It’s Mr. Madden, Jefferson’s my first name. Stop that!”

Some stray pieces of wood had come out of the walls like hands to wrap a fur snuggly around Jefferson’s shoulders as Rumple, sitting across from him sniggered softly into the thick red muffler the carriage had insisted he wear.

“Look, I appreciate the effort, but I’m really not very cold so if you could kindly desist in—“

The wooden hand that had come out of the wall, which would have been creepy had it come from anything else other than the eager-to-please carriage—now plucked the Hatter’s hat off and tried to exchange it for what looked like a giant flat turban made of thick black fur.

“I’m not wearing that hat!”

“It’s not just any hat, it’s a stroimel.”

I don’t care what you call it! My hat is a high velocity inter-dimensional object and a family heirloom and I won’t have it handled by a carriage that just came to life five months ago, now give it back!

“Are you sure? The other is bound to be so much toastier!”

“Gggrrrr!”

“So why did the Mistress want us to come to this place?” Rumple broke in worriedly.

“She wants us to collect information,” the Hatter informed him as he beat the carriage’s disembodied hand with one of ten nearby scatter cushion provided expressedly for their comfort.

“Apparently, the shoemaker and his wife in the village have come upon hard times. La Belle Dame Sans Merci owes the family a favour and would like us to find a way to assist them.”

“But surely, she could just give them some money—“

“It would be used up in a fortnight,” said the Hatter.

“But if she gave enough money—“

“They might stop being shoemakers entirely then and that is not in her interest.”

“Oh.”

“What we need to do, is find a way to make sure the family stay shoemakers, but become prosperous and in demand enough to feed themselves and slightly enlarge their business—but not by too much.”

“Well that is rather specific, but surely the Dark Lady—“

“Has other things to worry about. That’s why she’s dispatched us, along with a small piece of mushroom to address the problem. What we’re to do requires very little magic, but quite a lot of expertise with a needle and thread and fashion design. Whereas her specialty is the opposite-- quite a lot of magic with very little sewing or care for fashion.”

“Really? I’ve always thought she looks so well put together.”

“That’s because as well as collecting magical items from distant realms for her, I also design most of her outfits.”

“Ah, well good on you then, but I really don’t see how we’re meant to help these people and what going to a pub has to do with anything. Couldn’t we just hide out behind their shop and help from there where no one can see us, or better yet, work remotely from the castle?”

“No. Rumple, listen to me, as a friend—“

“We’ve known each other less than a day—“

“Haven’t you ever thought that this is your chance?”

“My chance to do what?”

“You don’t have to serve her, you know. If you left now I doubt she would do anything. This is your chance to be free if you so choose. What if you don’t get another again? I know you told me before, this world is likely to be harsh to you because of your injury, but it’s not necessarily so. What if you had all the money you needed to make a life for yourself out there whether you worked or not?”

“What are you suggesting?”

“I could give you this—“ He opened the wooden box and showed the bit of mushroom to Rumple in the fading daylight that streamed through the carriage window.

“Cor! Now that’s a proper Vesalvis microscopicus!” announced the carriage to no one in particular. “Worth a pretty penny, that is!”

“You could take it and sell it at the market for, I don’t know—maybe two or three thousand guilders. You could hardly call yourself a beggar then, with that sort of largesse.

“I couldn’t steal that from Belle! She’d know anyway!”

“Well, you just think about it, I’ll see if we have some more left over after the mission to give to you. I could just say we had to use it all, that’s all. She wouldn’t have given it to me unless she expected us to use the lot.”

“Why would you help me to be free anyway?”

“Because, I know what it’s like to be trapped in one place and a guilded cage is still a cage and a cage is no place for a human being. You may not feel the bars now, because what you knew before was so much worse, but trust me, it’s true.”

“If I wanted your advice about my situation,” remarked Rumple, “I’d ask for it.”

Chapter Text

One Week Ago
 
The Dark Spirit was sulking.  Dark Spirit or Sorceress, Magician or Beast. It had endless names, plus a few insulting ones Belle saved for when she was particularly frustrated with the creature she shared her small, scale covered frame with.

Usually, La Belle Dame Sans Merci was happy to have of break from the Beast’s endless, negative running commentary on her life, her choices and the people around her.  The Beast had the amazing ability to just shut down all her enthusiasms and joys with one well placed snarky comment and she hated it. The extra paranoia that usually crept into her thoughts and behavior when the Dark Spirit was in the ascension usually had a way of rebounding on her to bite her in the back later on, too, when the Spirit was dormant, leaving her to deal with the fallout.

If the Beast had just been content to sit back quietly and let Belle go about her business, it wouldn’t have been such a problem, but just to let Belle know she was actually still there and seriously pissed off at her host, the Spirit had taken to messing with Belle’s magic.

For the past month it had been happening with increasing frequency.

While Belle was incanting some spell that needed very precise wording, the beastly spirit would suddenly take over and mess up the whole thing with a sudden “shit” or “damn” just when the spell was really starting to get going, causing the magic to fizzle out or transform into something completely unpredictable. So far, magical mishaps of this manner had made a complete mess of Belle’s library and relocated her laboratory to her garden conservatory half a mile away. The conservatory was now where the laboratory used to be and she knew Rumple wasn’t the only one bothered by the inconvenience of sharing the second floor with noisy Artemisian Screaming Lilies, Brachius Trumpets and Tap-Dancing Ladyslippers. Belle had a good idea what was annoying the Dark Spirit, but she let the thing tell her in its own time. They’d survived this long by avoiding direct confrontation wherever possible. Sometimes its annoyance would dissipate like the weather if she waited it out.
 But now they were at an impasse, with Belle unable to do magic properly and the Spirit unable to fully access Belle’s senses until it stopped interfering with her magic.
A tete a tete was the only thing to break the stalemate and it wasn’t something Belle was looking forward to.

Her little caretaker would have to be got out of the way first, just in case things went badly with the Beast. To this end she employed a particularly stubborn and stinky concoction of tomato paste, red wine, wild boar blood, squashed toad, enchanted squid ink and liquefied giant durian of advanced age, to stain the cream-coloured library carpet.

“There, that should keep him occupied,” she thought with great satisfaction and retired to her private apartments.  

Then she stripped down to her shift and chanting a few select calming words fell back into a trance on her bed, letting her gaze travel round and round the hypnotic mandalas she had painted on her ceiling specifically for this purpose.

The spirit rushed in quickly like water through a sluice gate. Belle shoved down her panic as she felt herself drowning in it, the rising ice water, like a cold fist clenched round her heart, a black lake on a dark, deadly cold night in midwinter and here she was plunging through the ice into its endless freezing depths that seemed to go on forever colder and colder and colder, its chill oozing into her mouth and eyes and ears, invading her in her most private of private places-- in body, but most of all in mind. 

Chapter Text

“Now that’s more like it,” a demonic voice thrummed appreciatively up the base of her skull. She could feel the foreignness of its tendrils snaking down her nerves, sharing in her electrical impulses, gorging itself on feeling, sensation, delighting in the access she gave it to having senses once again, to experiencing the world around it through sound, taste, touch, and so many more sense than humans even thought about. 

There are so many senses humans didn’t even think about, but once denied to you, realize how much you miss, having a sense of the passage of time, of the three dimensional world around you, of your body at rest and at motion—sensation is everything.

The Spirit moved through her experimentally inflating and deflating her lungs in an awkwardly timed unaccustomed breath, tasting the tangy quality of real air with its darting lizard-like tongue, all the while knowing Belle was just tempting it with access to her senses and it hated her for that, as it always did.

Part of it longed to take over, to obliterate Belle and have this gloriously sensitive body to itself, but it felt her pulling it back in.  The Spirit whined like a dog on a leash as it felt Belle’s control bring her spirit to heel.  

Slowly, gently Belle brought the spirit’s attention back to the reason she had summoned it forth to begin with.

“What do you want?” it snarled back at her and snapped the teeth in Belle’s mouth in consternation.  Belle ducked her tongue in lest it be bitten off by the creature’s annoyance.   The beast would never destroy its vessel, but she knew from bitter experience that it wasn’t above causing her harm and pain to make a point.  Even if she could heal herself easily now and erase any damage, the memory of it still clung to her brain and body in ways she knew helped the beast control her.  At times like these she hated it more than ever. 

 

“Tell me what is bothering you, my friend?” she crooned to it, stroking it with her mind, the way one would a sleek pelt of mink, calming it with soothing, flattering words into an approximation of, if not actual, submission.  “You’ve been so distant from me of late. Pray tell why?”

The beast was momentarily caught off guard. It had expected to be chastised, rather than spoken to in such a solicitous manner and was momentarily surprised into honesty.   

“It’s him!” it snarled. 

“Oh who could you mean?” asked Belle innocently.

“That servant!” spat the Beast.  “Rumpled-foreskin or whatever you call him.  It’s high time you—I mean we were rid of him.  It has to be.  For both our sakes.  Belle Marie Frontenac, you know what I speak of.”

It was a dirty trick of the Sorceress Spirit, this, Belle thought to bind her attention through the use of her full name.  Names had power.

“It’s the best for both of us,” the Spirit explained.  “You know what I mean.”

“Ah.”  She had been wondering when the Spirited Beast would take umbrage at how much space the little caretaker had begun to occupy in her thoughts of late. 

The predictable creature was nothing if not jealous to the core of any part of Belle it could not occupy with itself.  It had been alone, without a body for a long time and had long lost the taste for romantic partnership and friendship that so marked the human species.  “Love is weakness,” it often chided her and Belle did not doubt it spoke the truth, at least some of the time.

She worried about the little caretaker.  She knew she had enemies, powerful enemies.  If any of them ever found out how much she actually cared for Rumple, they could hurt him to get to her.  He was not immortal.  The brisk tap-tap stick sound he made as he moved through her castle and the hesitant slowed-down sound of his sticks hitting stone as he attempted to muffle the noise whenever he was around the door to her work room, were a sobering reminder of this fact.  And yet the sounds he made were also an unexpected comfort to her in her loneliness.   Even when he said nothing, and tried to shrink into the shadows or make himself inconspicuous, that little noise was part of him.  She could choose to hear it if listened closely whenever she felt lonely even if he was as far away as the most distant corner of her garden. 

All she had to do was tune her unnatural hearing in his direction and she could hearing him softly humming his strange little Frontlands ditties as he tied the roses to their poles and pinched the rosehips off for use in her potions.   Just to know he was there, caring for her castle, that she saw as an extension of herself in a way, moving within it, simply existing in his sweet, gentle-natured uncomplicated way filled her with a warm, pleasant feeling, in her chest like a sip of sweet tea. 

But it was swiftly followed by a clutching feeling of anxiety.  She could never forget that he was the one person her magic could not touch.  She could never properly protect him.  If anyone ever found out who he was or what he did, they could torture him to learn her secrets and Rumple had been hurt enough for one lifetime, in her opinion.  In fact, in her opinion she would like it very much if she could set up the world in a way that he would never be hurt ever again as long as he lived.

As long as nobody knew whom he worked for or how much he mattered to her, she reasoned, he was safe—a peasant in appearance, not even worth taking to make a soldier out of, due to his bent foot—the last person in the world you’d wager to be kidnapped and ransomed, of no obvious value to anyone. 

And for now, no one would ever guess that one such as him knew anything at all about the dark castle or its mysterious magical inhabitant. 

But… the longer Rumple stayed, the more the castle revealed of itself to him, the more knowledge he’d have for some unscrupulous person to extract if they so chose—or for him to sell—remarked the dark spirit harshly.  Don’t forget that.  You never did get the truth serum to work on him.  You have no idea what he may be keeping from you or what his motivations are in staying here.

Belle was pretty sure Rumple’s motivations were the very transparent human ones of staying warm and not starving to death instead of taking his chances out there with a world that seemed more likely to stomp him into the dust than treat him like a human being—but the spirit didn’t always see things in terms of basic human needs. 

And Belle knew, though the experience was long ago, from the love her father had bestowed on her, that love for another person and belief in what they could do could be a power too.   

Even if her love for her poor inventor father had been used to hurt her and make her do things that repulsed her in order to protect him, it didn’t cancel out the fact that his love had given her the strength to triumph and endure even that in the end.  He had helped her take the power rather than keep it to save himself.  His love had forced her to survive, to gather her strength to her and endure.  Still, in a tiny, untainted corner of her being she still wished to make him proud of her, as silly as that now seemed.  After what he had given her she could turn her back on love entirely. 

Anything, even something that made you strong, could be forged into weapon when wielded by one who meant to hurt or wound you, her experience taught her.  And even something that looked like a weakness to the outside world, could be a source of unexpected strength in the right hands. 

So then, was Rumple a weakness or a strength?

The longer he stayed the more attached she grew to him.  And attachments, the spirit reminded her were something they could not afford.  Not if they were to do what they’d been trying to do for the past hundred years— and their mission must take ultimate importance—or else what was all this collecting and searching for magical items in aid of?

The thing Belle and the Beast sought was the means to free them from each other.  The Beast  had made a pact early on with its host—Belle’s very first deal, the deal to end all others.  The Beast would give Belle all the power she craved and Belle would allow it free access to the human senses and sensations it craved. 

Such an agreement sufficed, but only in the short term. Ultimately, neither one was satisfied with this life of constant struggle, with each striving to take more power and rise to the fore, fighting for access to Belle’s single human body and domain over her thoughts and external behaviours. Even if Belle could spend the rest of her magically lengthened life fighting it, the power of the sorceress beast would burn through her body eventually.  Even a body preternaturally strengthened through magic had its limits.  The magician had no desire to lose its home and be forced to seek out another host, one who might not be so accommodating or able to instinctively understand magic with such speed and ability as Belle.

 A two body solution was what was required, but there were rules as to what each party would accept. Belle wanted to have her body to herself again, but still hold onto a large portion of the magic she got through her association with the dark spirit.  She was willing to become fully mortal she said, but not to give up her magic completely.  She had not forgotten her old life as a maid and just the thought of going back to being so powerless terrified her to the core.  Even if the ones who had hurt her as a young woman had not been dispatched in her fury, enough time had passed that anyone who had known her before her transformation was long since dead and she could barely remember what it felt like to feel physical pain anymore and yet… the hurt and betrayal remained and her fury at those who had hurt her still lingered despite everything.   Even a woman possessed of great wealth was still a woman, a lesser being in the eyes of most in their world.

The Beast needed a body, but not a host.  It was done with fighting tooth and nail just to get access to a few paltry physical sensations.   The spirit would be in possession full time or nothing, it stressed to Belle.   It needed a fully functional body that would let it experience all the sensation, without an already resident consciousness to muck it up and interfere.  It too knew morality might be the price of such a boon, but it was willing to live a time limited life, if it was one that provided the sensations the sorceress craved.  Oh, and a little magical power on the side, so it didn’t have to live as the basest humans did wouldn’t go amiss.  It had seen enough of the lives of slaves and vassals to realize that an existence on the bottom of the heap wasn’t worth its time.  Just because it wanted all the sensations a normal human had, didn’t mean it want to live the way most of them did.

Those were the terms of the deal they struck with each other and Belle and the dark spirit had been looking for the means to divide themselves ever since.  Even with magic and the aid of Jefferson, the realm-jumper, they knew it would be a difficult desire to fill, but they were patient, they had time.  As the years went by La Belle Dame Sans Merci learned how to play the long game.

Chapter Text

“This Rumple,” snorted the dark spirit, “he is nothing but a distraction at best and at worst is a tool that could be used to harm us.  I am just trying to protect us! Just think of my—of our best interests and you will see you’re the decision is clear.”

But Belle wasn’t thinking of herself or the power she shared her body with just then.   Instead she thought of Rumple. Really, he had only just got a sliver of his old life back after living as a slave for so many years.  At best if he remained with her, he’d always have his job as a servant, but she, who’d always been able to see to the heart of a person, even before her transformation, didn’t need magic to see he could be so much more, if only given a bit of a chance and a hand up in the world.  He would always be crippled it seemed, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t have a rich and comfortable existence with a wife and family, a prosperous business and a high position somewhere, where the taint of his former slavery wouldn’t stain his status in other’s eyes.  She couldn’t change anything about his person with magic, but she could create a false identity for him with ease, with her vast resources and long accumulated wealth. 

She’d noticed he had nervous hands as she did, hands that could never seem to stay still, always craving a cloth for polishing or a bit of mending to occupy them.  Like her, he wasn’t the sort who’d be content to just sit back and indulge in a life of leisure.  Such a life without movement, activity or purpose would grate on him, she knew.   

She thought she could see him being quite comfortable as the master of a dozen spinning apprentices though, or perhaps a wealthy merchant or leader of a weavers’ guild. There was a wide gulf between being forced to work to death, never knowing where your next meal or spot of rest is coming from and a life where you controlled how much or how little you worked, where you worked for love, rather than subsistence.

If he stayed and remained as her servant, she knew one of her many enemies was bound to find him and torture and kill him into revealing her secrets. 

Chapter Text

“So you’ll help me get rid of him?” prompted the dark spirit. 

Belle did not answer.

“Yes or no?”

“Fine, but we need to do it my way.”

“Whatever.”

“Seriously!”  

“Like I said, sure.”

“You said whatever!”

“Same thing.”

“And we need to get rid of him in a way that doesn’t hurt him.”

“We need to get rid of him in a way that doesn’t harm our reputation is what we have to do! If you style yourself as ‘The Beautiful Woman Without Mercy’ you can’t be letting a captive once taken go free just because you pity him!“

“No! It’s not because I—“  She wanted to say, it wasn’t because she felt pity for him, but another emotion entirely, but quickly realize it was better not to follow that train of thought in conversation with the Beast.  She didn’t want to open that Pandora’s box with the dark spirit, who knew what the beast might try to get her to do to him then.  “—I mean who would he tell?” she finished lamely.

“We don’t know,” it snarled in frustration.  “We still know next to nothing about him!  Which is why he can’t know that it’s us letting him go. That won’t do at all.  How can you maintain people’s fear and awe of you if they think it’s so easy to get you to soften up and sympathize with them?  We’ll have every pitiable waif and crippled stray begging at the castle door in no time looking for a blasted handout!  You want to run some Blessed Lady of the Dark Castle charity convent here, you can count me out! What sort of example does that set?  Do you want everyone we ever sign a contract with reneging on their payments?  Where will we be with our plan then?”

“Yes, you’re right.”  Belle felt the spirit preen under her recognition of its righteousness.  It was predictable in its love of getting its own way. “What do you suggest, oh wise sorceress?”

If the spirit detected a note of sarcasm in Belle’s appeal, she couldn’t tell by its straightforward answer.  “He will have to make a cunning escape, that is all.  As long as he knows we didn’t set him free and thinks it was all his own idea to escape from the ferocious beast of the dark castle we should be fine.”

“The outside world, let me remind you, has not been kind to him and he has everything he needs here.  Why would he try to escape?”

“Because humans like to run free?”

“That’s the best you’ve got?”

“Well how should I know, I haven’t been human in gods know how long.  You’re the one who’s supposed to know what motivates them.”

“Hmmmm… I suppose we can just give him the opportunity and see where it goes.” 

“It’s a place to start anyway.”

Chapter Text

At sunrise, the next morning Belle left the window to the kitchen open.  She made sure, of course, that it was the ground floor window and that the small, two foot drop to the ground below was fully overgrown overnight with the softest and least stinging form of plant life she had at hand in her garden, so that Rumple was most unlikely to injure himself dropping the to the ground from the casement. 

Next she made sure there was plenty of gold lying about in the kitchen for him to take and that the gate door in the wall surrounding the castle was clearly free from all magical barriers free—not that the blocking spells she’d placed around the castle wall would actually keep Rumple from leaving if he chose to vault over the wall, since her magic didn’t work on him.  She depended on the tall stone wall itself for that.

Unfortunately, the door in the wall did have a naughty habit of closing back in on itself when it got windy out.  If it swung back in it would stay resolutely closed unless you really pushed it hard with your shoulder at a specific spot.  Its what came of getting the castle used, she supposed. 

She used a small spell on the metal ring that opened the door to keep it from closing back on itself if someone touched it. 

The Beast within her nodded appreciatively as they turned back towards the castle. 

The sun rose and with her supernaturally acute hearing, La Belle Dame Sans Merci heard her caretaker begin to stir into wakefulness in his bedroom and rub the sleep out of his eyes.  She imagined how his hair might look in the morning, sticking up this way and that.  She wondered if the pillow left crease marks on his cheek when he woke up, and knew now that she’d never get a chance to find out.  Such mortal pleasures were not her due, not if she chose to keep her power.

It would be good for him to leave.  He upset things, stirred up eddies of sediment, these sentimental emotions in the depths of her soul she’d thought long, long, since turned to rock, pressed to hardness under all the pressure of everything that had happened since the days she was human, sealed over and fossilized to stone.  It was disturbing in a way to realize those desires still dwelled inside her and that what she once thought was unimpeachable stone, was really molten.  The restless magma beneath her calm surface moved and churned in ways undeniable.

From the kitchen the sound of a whistling kettle, told her that Mrs. Potts had brewed the tea. 

It would have to stop. She couldn’t continue this way.    

She couldn't risk opening her heart again.

Look what it had once cost her.

Chapter Text

Rumple spent the first part of the morning completely preoccupied with a dollhouse, Belle had forgotten she’d asked him to dust the week before.  Of course, like many objects in the castle, it hadn’t started out as a dollhouse, but rather a regular sized house she’d been offer the deed to as payment in a deal. 

As the caretaker wondered out loud of the miracle of miniaturization and craftsman ship the house presented to the casual observer and lovingly wiped down every tiny toilet and fluffy the itty bitty thumbnail-sized pillows on the teensy beds the width of her hand, Belle paced her bedroom on the floor above him with undisguised impatience. 

Finally, finally Rumple made his way down to the kitchen, before the spirit tried once again to try to convince her that a few accurately placed kicks would do wonders to speeding up the process.     

Noting the gold scattered about amid the pots and pans he carefully gathered it all up in a casserole dish and put it aside to give to Belle later when he was done with preparing and serving her meal.  As Rumple stopped to give Chip and the other teacups their daily bath, he noticed the open window, which he didn’t remember leaving ajar before, but as the teacups had no modesty to preserve and the weather around Belle’s castle was never drafty even for one with as little meat on his bones as himself,  he merely opened the other side of the window to let in more of the beautiful scents of Belle’s dogwood roses and then, inspired went to the garden to cut a few to put in a pretty vase for Belle at dinner. 

While wandering about the grounds, looking for some smaller blooms to add to the large roses (they were the size of tea saucers in Belle’s garden)  he remembered a patch of forget-me-nots he’d noticed growing near the big wooden door by the western gate of the castle.  Hefting his basket onto his shoulder he quickly located the flowers he sought.

Looking up from cuttingthe  small blue blooms, he was shocked to notice the gate to the outside hanging wide open.

“Well, this will never do,” he tutted to Chip who’d accompanied him on this outing, despite his mother’s protestations, that he would catch cold if he wasn’t properly dried off with a tea towel.  Putting the porcelain cup-child down delicately on the ground and advising him to watch the flowers Rumple reached up with his right hand to pull the large metal ring on the door in to close it—only to realize his mistake as he gripped tightly onto the metal circle— the metal did something weird to his hands—he felt his palm burning as if he’d touched molten lead.  He sprung back with a scream, his left hand instinctively reaching for his singed right palm as he lost both his walking sticks and fell, bottom first onto the ground, cradling his injured hand.  Only later did he realized he’d squashed the basket of flowers meant for Belle. 

There was a sound like the crack of thunder.  He looked up and Belle appeared in a puff of blue smoke, eyes large and wild. 

“What. Did. You. Do?” asked Belle severely, exhaling out more blue-purple smoke with a snort. Her nostrils flared like those of the dragon she sometimes appeared to be, her large pupilled eyes inhumanely huge and close to his face. 

Rumple flinched away from her gaze and inched backwards in fear.   Miserably, he felt the smashed flowers grind themselves into the fabric of his trouser bottom.  Now that was going to be annoying to clean, he thought, assuming of course he survived La Belle Dame Sans Merci’s wrath.  Now what did he have to go and reach for that handle for? 

“Look at me Rumplestilskin!” her voice rasped harshly in his ears. 

He did as he was told, acutely aware of how her blue-gold scaled skin gleamed in the bright sunlight and how pointed and sharp the black talons she had for fingernails suddenly seemed. It was so easy to forget, when she wore fancy dresses and talked in her elegantly accented voice,  how quickly she could eviscerate him with a simple swipe of her hand. 

She cupped his chin in one of those deadly claws now and it took every ounce of his control not to flinch or try to dart away.  He knew it would only hurt all the more if he did.  Instead, he tried to calm his nerves, breathed slowly and listen.

“Are you alright?”  she asked.

“Wha—what?”

“Are you hurt?” she asked again, more impatiently this time. 

“N-n-no,” he lied, hiding his still-stinging hand guiltily behind his back as she peered down at him with those huge yellow eyes like someone trying to figure out a particularly aggravating bit of clockwork in a broken watch.

“Good!” she trilled and released his face, allowing him to sink back down with relief.  “Now spit spot—off to the kitchen to get yourself cleaned up!”  She swiveled on one pointed shoe and turned to walk away, but paused to look back. 

He cringed—what could she want now? 

She cocked her head, glowing yellow eyes bright like an owl’s-- “Oh ah, you needn’t bother with dinner tonight.  It’ll be alright, I’m not hungry.”  

 “B-b-but  I-I-I”  he tried to tell her he’d already got it almost all prepared, that it would be easier to serve it now than clean up what he had already made, but couldn’t seem to muster the words.

“Seriously, it’s alright.”

“Uh-huh.”

He was aware of her eyes on him, the power of her gaze causing him to sweat, as he fumbled about, searching for his sticks.  They rolled gently over to him of their own accord--her magic, he knew.

He hesitated to grip the right one, knowing it would hurt his hand to hold it bare.  Probably once she left he could wind his shirt around his hand or something and manage alright, but he couldn’t do it with her watching.  She’d know he’d lied.  What to do?

He looked up at the sound of a swish of fabric.  She’d glided forward suddenly, so that she now stood directly over him once more. A very human eyebrow quirked up on her scaled face.  “Need a hand?”  He watched her extend a black taloned hand out towards him.  There was a flash of what might have been concern in the look of those strange inhuman eyes, beneath feminine lashes, long and dark. 

It was hard to look away from that hypnotic gaze, but still hiding the palm of his singed hand from view, Rumple he shrank back.   Something deep inside him, the voice of self-preservation perhaps screamed out—Don’t let her see!  Don’t let her know what that metal does to you!  She can’t know of your magic!  Every time you’ve told it’s hurt you!  Almost killed you!  No one can know!  NO ONE!”

She looked down at her hand, hanging there in midair with a distracted expression as if realizing for the first time the sharpness of the talons, realizing guilty that they wouldn’t have looked out of place on some sort of lizard. 

How could you think sticking your claws out at him would come across as anything but threatening? laughed the Spirit, with dark glee. What? Did you think you were still human or something? Come on Belle, get a clue.  How many years has it been?

With a snap of her fanged jaws, Belle retracted her offending hand and turned to go.  Rumple couldn’t see the expression on her face, how she tried to school her eyes not to cry, the fury she felt that she couldn’t even offer this tiny bit of normal human assistance to someone without them thinking she was trying to hurt them—how cold and alone it was to be the only one like you in the whole world, for no one to understand--  “I understand,” whispered the Beast softly, pulling itself around her like a comforting, protective cloak, smothering in its inhumanity and desire for control. Mentally, Belle tore it from herself with a feeling like the pain of tearing off an old, well-afixed bandage. 

 

Don’t worry, I’ll send Carpet to fetch you,” she called back coldly, over her shoulder.  Rumple watched her stalk off back towards her castle, wondering why she didn’t just teleport.

But Belle needed a good stomping walk, full of kicking errant, offending pebbles and bits of recaltriant shrubbery.  She dug her offending claws into the capacious pockets of her gown, enjoying the stress and give as the sharp talons broke through the thick, expensive fabric. By the time she had reached her apartments on the upper floor of the castle, the entire garment was shredded to ribbons and she felt much better.  It was time, she mused, to call the tailor.  Maybe he would have an answer.   

By the now closed door in the tall stone wall surrounding the Dark Castle, Rumple sat waiting for the throbbing in his hand to subside a little before he tried wrapping it in the tea towel Chip had fetched from the kitchen. 

“You could’ve just told her,” the little cup muttered disapprovingly as it squeezed the water out of the towel and proffered it to Rumple. 

The caretaker bowed his head. “No, I couldn’t. Too much the coward, me.” 

Chapter Text

Present Day

 

It was cold in the village.

 

Rumple remembered this kind of weather, from his childhood home with his aunts in the northern most part of the Frontlands.  Gazing out the window as they arrived in the town, Rumple noticed the light layer of snow that lay upon the houses and trees, sparkling in the sun like icing on a frosted cake.   The beauty of it made him ache with nostalgia, of memories of making snow angels and skating on a frozen pond; of drinking hot mulled cider by a cheery fire and long ago holiday markets in a northern town, even as his much abused joints in the present ached and stiffened up with the cold draft that seeping through the gap in the carriage door.  

 

As the carriage stopped, he remained seated as Jefferson bounded down the steps.  Rumple watched the hatter from the doorway, as he slipped and skidded to a stop some ways away from where he had first stepped down, laughing and unharmed.

 

Underneath that thin skin of snow, Rumple’s sinking heart saw the layer of gray ice lying thick and deadly on the ground, ready to trip up the fool who’d try to limp across on sticks. 

 

Every year back in his aunt’s village, the winter, whose first snow the children cheered and romped in, whose coming they celebrated with their solisitice festival on the longest night of the year, was a mindless force and truly, truly without mercy. When the snow began to melt on the first days of warmer weather and the snow bound paths were unblocked at last, his aunts ventured cautiously around to the houses of their neighbours, bracing themselves, not only against the still present chill in the air, but against what they might find when they checked in. Each year Winter passed through town like Death with a scythe, culling the newly born, the elderly, the sick and the lame; leaving on the only the strong still standing in its wake.    

 

Rumple knew which group he fell into now as he stood in the doorway of the carriage, his sharp, thin, shoulders shivering under a cloak of borrowed furs, his hands, their fingertips burning with cold, lost in the capascious sleeves of the coat Chatty Cathy had insisted he wear.  It was tailored for someone with longer measurements, bigger bones and wider shoulders than his, but of course, that applied to pretty much everybody.  If he had lived in a wintry village like this as the man he was today, Rumple knew, without a doubt he would have been one of those who didn't survive to see the summer. He wouldn’t have deserved to. It was a sobering thought.

 

Why in the world he had consented to this ridiculous “mission” with the Hatter? he thought with growing irritation.  The fact that anyone would think anyone as weak and useless as he was would be a help, rather than a hindrance on any kind of important project was laughable.   Right now he thought he’d be pretty impressed with himself if he managed to make it to the door of the inn without falling on his ass, but he doubted Belle would think that much of a feat.

He cursed his stupid pride for letting him believe there was anything remotely special that he of all people, could do to help La Belle Dame Sans Merci.  Just because you wished with all your heart for something, didn’t mean you could twist reality to fit your wish, no matter how powerful. He should be old enough now to face reality, but as always he was too stupid, too dreamy not to live at least partly in his imagination.    

 

He was heartily glad it never snowed in Belle’s realm, not unless she needed it for something specific.  She said it interfered with the growth of her plants.   She said they never grew as well as when he tended them and his heart felt like it would nearly burst out of his chest at that small compliment.  That’s where he should be, thought Rumple, there with the plants in a warm garden, instead of this cold place that stiffened his poor body up in all the wrong places.  Plants were so easy for him.  He never felt rushed, or awkward or startled there.  Green things never taunted or made fun, never grew impatient when he took too long. He felt so useful and right in the garden and almost graceful with his nimble fingers on stalks and stems, so comfortable with growing quiet things.  He thought dreamily of those lovely forest of green, of soft, rubbery, flesh-like pink flowers, of razor sharp thorns like talons, so deadly to the wrong person, but if one only knew how to touch a stem or flower gently, never roughly, and only in the right places, to be patient and work with, rather than against their essential plantly nature, to coax them into their growing, you could get the results you wanted, if you were only patient, and very, very gentle…

 

“Oi, Rumple, need a hand?” Jefferson asked, breaking into Rumple’s contemplation of unseen roses. 

 

Rumple nodded, and suddenly felt himself sucked back into himself, back to timid and useless once again.    

 

If Jefferson registered a change in his friend’s mood, he didn’t say. 

 

“I’m going to lift you up, okay?”

 

“I-I-I guess,” answered Rumple uncertainly.

 

Jefferson stepped upon the lowest stair of the carriage and gave a very surprised Rumple  a ig bear hug around the waist.  Solid, surprisingly muscular arms that he wouldn’t have thought a foppish personage like Jefferson could possibly possess, lifted the breathless caretaker up and out of the carriage, over the steps and down to the ground. 

 

“Lean against dear Cathy over here,” the Hatter told him, “I’ll go grab your sticks, alright?”

 

“Alright,” repeated Rumple. 

 

Rumple’s eyes watered from the cold bite of the wind.  It skirled around tossing up eddies of snow that swirled around his legs, dumping wetness down the tops of his boots. 

 

Jefferson returned with Rumple's walking sticks, as he promised.  Rumple tried to disguise his relief as he watched the Hatter's long, patchwork scarf whip around behind him in the breeze like a tail.  Jefferson’s nose and mouth were hidden below the layer of fabric, but Rumple could see the twinkle in his mischevious eyes; it disturbed him.  Rumple didn’t trust that merry look.  Whenever an unusual dose of merriment seemed to flow around Rumple in the past, it was usually because "mock the cripple" was on the menu.  “Aah now tonight is a night for a nourishing brother of pea soup with ham and of course a healthy mug of hot mulled cider,” announced his companion rubbing his hands. "Time to get to that cozy tavern, over yonder, eh?" Rumple didn't budge.

“Onwards and upwards, brave Rumple!” the Hatter shouted and put his gloved hand over Rumple's mittened one, making like they were two boys about to jump hand and hand into a summer lake.  Rumple didn't move an inch. 

  Aside from the risk of falling on the ice, Rumple found the Hatter's sudden rush of exuberance somewhat terrifying.  He tried to be brave.  He closed his eyes and told himself he’d let go once he got to ten.  He got to ten and remained fixed to the carriage, too scared to try his luck with the ice and snow, absolutely positive his sticks wouldn't hold him. 

“Don’t worry Rumple, you’ll be alright,” he heard a confidential woody voice say in his ear.  Rumple felt a gentle nudge in his ribs from Cathy the carriage, and the squeak of axles as she shifted on her wooden wheels.  “Go on, luv, I'm right here behind you.  You won’t fall.”

 

“For gods’ sakes, I’m not a child,” Rumple snapped techtily and pushed off from Chatty Cathy.  “Come along Hatter, let’s get this over with.”  

Jefferson’s eyes crinkled with a scarf-concealed grin as Rumple limped off in the direction of the tavern.  "After you dear."  

Buttery light spilled out from the frosted windows of the tavern, with a warm, enticing glow, urging them on.

Chapter Text

 

Rumple’s wobbly sticks skittered trying to find purchase on the ice.  Images of himself broken in a million pieces on the ground seized his mind.  He was fairly certain he nearly had twenty heart attacks in the time it took for him to go from skidding out of control over a patch of frozen cobblestones to the moment, to leaning with his sticks like two ski poles in a snow drift by the side of the road.  At least on the margin, it was snow all the way down with no treacherous ice to intervene between. Unfortunately, this left him to pick his way through snow drifts nearly up to his knees.  He pulled one stick experimentally out of a wind sculpted drift and placed it down into another. 

 

It appeared he would survive to struggle onward to the pub, no thanks to Jefferson of course, who just had to bring him along on this ridiculous journey, that seemed determined to finish him off. 

 

“I h-h-hate you!” stammered Rumple, shaking with what he hoped came off as cold, but was just as much fear as anything else. “I-I t-t-told you I didn’t want to leave the castle!  But you just had to go and convince Belle that I needed to get out and—“

 

“Oh come on,” said Jefferson expansively.  “I thought everybody wanted a adventure in the great wide somewhere!  You should be thanking me for adding a little spice to your humdrum servant’s life1”

 

 “My boots are wet and I’m cold and—and--“

 

“It’s not that bad—“

 

“I’m going to die here, on this stupid patch of ice outside some shitty tavern with my pockets full of questionable mushrooms and only my fleas will mourn me!” moaned Rumple. 

 

“You have fleas?”

 

“That’s not the point!  You brought me out here on this icy road to kill me!”

 

“Oh don’t be such a drama king.  You’re not going to die.  Why if you slip and fall at most you might break a leg,” remarked Jefferson with a shrug.  “Maybe an arm… or both wrists— of course you could crack your head--“

 

“Not helping,” gritted out Rumple as he stabbed one of his canes through the snow, imagining it was Jefferson’s vulnerable throat.  accusingly as he poked his way slowly through the snow.

 

“You don’t have to go that way through all that snow,” said Jefferson.  “I could carry you.”

 

“Over that ice?   No thanks.  You almost fell three times already.  I doubt you’d be any more stable with me on your back and then I just be squished beneath you.”

 

“How do you know you wouldn’t squish me?”

 

“Because I am a tiny little man and you are not.”

 

“Ah, fair point.  Fine, then what do you want me to do?” asked Jefferson flexing his hands in their pockets impatiently.  “I can’t just stand here and watch you do that for an hour.”

 

“No one said you had to watch.”    

 

“Belle did.  She said I’m to look after you and if anything happened to you, she’d re-decapitate me herself.”

 

“She did?” 

 

Jefferson could’ve sworn a dreamy sort of look sprang instantly into Rumple’s large brown eyes.  But was it at the mention of Belle's thoughtfulness towards her little caretaker or the mention of Jefferson's re-decapitation?  The Hatter really couldn't tell. 

 

“So tell me how I can help?”

 

“Why don’t you—oh I don’t know—entertain me, how about that?” proffered Rumple.

 

“Entertain you,” repeated the Hatter thoughtfully.  “Hmmmm…Do you like music?”

 

“I guess,” shrugged Rumple.

 

“Oh goody!” cried the Hatter and did a careless pivot on the ice that nearly sent him flying.  “I’ve been working on this song for weeks, but I’ve not had anyone to try it out on.  You may not know this, but folk music’s a bit of a hobby of mine.  Making up rhymes passes the time when I’m travelling between realms and keeps me from thinking about murder.”

 

“Uh…”

 

Then, to Rumple’s horror, the Hatter he extracted a harmonica from one of his numerous pockets and began to play the opening bars of what turned out to be a lengthy song about a tragically unsuccessful winged monkey protest action in what he gathered was a northern mining town called Oz. 

 

As the hatter’s deep, out of tune voice sang entered into the second poorly rhymed couplet, Rumple thought wistfully of the four dear walls of his tidy kitchen back at the Dark Castle. He yearned with his entire being for his cozy safe little world, where Mrs. Potts whistled away on the hob and Lumiere chatted with him by the fireplace.  Suddenly, his home felt distressingly far away.  

 

His home?  Why he had only been there for a few months, or was it nearly a year now?  And when was the last time he’d thought of a place as home before? 

 

It was odd, but even the thought of his old checkered dish cloth, skimming over Belle’s beautiful porcelain dishes without him, nearly brought tears to his eyes.  In Belle’s kitchen Rumple felt safe and when had he last felt that?   Just the picturing himself standing at the sink with his knee resting on his favourite wooden chair, his clever hands free to go about their busy work, relaxed him. 

 

So what if the whole process had grown a little routine?  Boredom was the absolute last thing on his mind, Rumple firmly told himself.   He was certainly not excited to be out of the castle for the first time in months!

 

He knew from hard won experience that change was usually not for the better. Somehow events and his own cursed luck only seemed to cause any new venture to sour and leave him all the worse off in the end. Better to not court change at all, and to be content with things as they were, rather than risk what you had for some effemral chance at an improvement in your situation.   

 

If the harsh facts of his life had taught him anything, it was that even when you think things are as bad as they can be, they can always get worse. 

 

But even if when he tried to keep things the same, they seemed determined to change, despite his best efforts. 

 

For example, Belle had discovered he knew how to read.

 

He hadn’t volunteered the information but, she’d discovered it anyway.  It was patently obviously, once he’d alphabetized her poetry books.  He just couldn’t help himself when it came to organizing.  The political pamphlet drawer came next and before he knew it she’d given him some light book-keeping duties.  Keeping the files on all the people she’d made deals with over the years was quite the task.  And if his eye occasionally strayed to details of the transaction, rather than just the name signed on the bottom that he needed for filing it away, Belle didn’t seem to mind that he wasn’t fast, just that he get it all done eventually.  In fact she seemed keen to encourage his curiosity and often quizzed him on books she caught him reading or engaged him in conversation about their merits.

 

The only stipulation she’d made upon discovering he was literate was this:  “If you have some ability, information or knowledge you think I would be interested you must promise you’ll tell me.  Not all deceptions are made to another in words. The worst lies they say, are those told in silence—which means by the with-holding of strategic information and trust me, Rumplestilskin, I know exactly how effective that can be.” 

 

She inspected her claws as she spoke, trying to feign disinterest, but Rumple squirmed, knowing this was an unusually specific direction for his mistress to give him.  

 

He wondered then if she suspected anything.  Could she tell he had magic?  He’d probably had all the magic beat out of him anyway, so what was the point in telling her now? But she must suspect something, or else why would she say that?  What else could it be?  But, his mind countered, he hadn’t turned anything to gold for years and it was never anything he really controlled, just an occasional fluke, a stupid trick that never worked when he needed it to anyway.  That wasn’t real magic, not like what Belle had.  And in the end it brought him nothing but pain and suffering, anyway. Telling her would only cause him more problems, and spoil what little good fortune he now had. 

 

In the library Belle had trailed one hand over his shoulder in feigned carelessness, but he knew her ways.  She didn’t ordinarily touch people. Only when she wanted them to feel threatened did she impose herself on anyone.

 

Suddenly, he felt sure down to the fibres of his bones that she knew, but then logic came to his rescue, stating it was impossible, she couldn’t read minds, or see his past; there was no way she could know.

 

“So tell me Rumple, are you sure there aren’t any other little secrets you’ve been keeping from me?” she asked softly, a sweet smiled hiding her small pointed teeth.

 

Rumple felt his pulse race and his face grown hot.  “I-I- you know those cherries you had me pick and put into jars to store in the cold cellar?”

 

She quirked an eyebrow at him.  “Yes?”

 

“Um, yes, well originally there were 24, not 23 like I said.”

 

“And what happened to the other jar you didn’t tell me about?” she asked, her apprehension hanging in the air, like a knife about to fall.

 

“I ate it.”

 

Belle let out a snort of laughter.  “He ate it,” she repeated, as if explaining something to a simpleton.  “He ate it! You hear that?”  she announced, as if speaking to someone else in the room he could not see.  “Obviously, a fellow steeped in the devious arts.  Best to be on our guard around this one, oh yes! I win the wager so ha ha aha!  Go take a nap!”   

 

“Thank you, dear boy,” she remarked to Rumple in a stage whisper, her red lips curled up to reveal a happy fanged smile. “You’ve just made my week.” 

 

All in all, it had been one of the oddest conversations he had ever taken part in, especially since Belle seemed to act like there were three people involved in it, instead of the two he could clearly see and she seemed pleased he had eaten the cherries rather than furious as he had worried she’d be, as if somehow that proved some point to someone about him.   He wondered if she was talking to a ghost or she just went mad like that sometimes.   She could be so unpredictable at times. 

 

Rumple was just glad she hadn’t bothered to check up on all the materials he was reading.

 

Rumple was secretly doing research on a subject he was intimately familiar with; himself.   There was so much he didn’t understand about what had happened to him, all those events that had swept down on him like waves, like a tsunami he could do nothing to prevent, merely experience as his body was flung into the waves to be tossed about this way and that as the ocean liked. There wasn’t much time to investigate matters when you were just trying to keep your head above water and survive. 

 

He didn’t really believe he could regain his ability to make gold again or fix his oddly withered foot, not to mention the insurmountable challenge of abolishing slavery in even one prefecture of the Frontlands. Still, he thought, maybe even if he couldn’t change anything, he could at least feel some measure of control over it through understanding why it happened. He wouldn’t feel so stupid and powerless if only he could understand why; what made these things the way they were?  And was there ever the possibility for them to be any other way?

 

“Well done!  You made it!”

 

“Wh-what?” Rumple stammered.  He hadn’t noticed the Hatter finish his song.

 

“Lets go inside.”

 

Rumple, realized with a start, that while he’d been distracted, thinking about his research and odd encounter with Belle the week before, he’d somehow managed to walk all the way from the carriage to the door of the public house, with the minimum of panic and zero slips or falls.

 

Would wonders never cease.  He couldn’t help but give himself a little internal cheer.  Now all he had to do was stay upright long enough to get back into the Cathy the carriage at the end of the night.  Of course between that time and now he would have to tolerate the prying eyes of several unfamiliar townspersons, not to mention Jefferson plying him with enough food to make a lightweight like him sleepy.  And then at a place like this there was usually alcohol.  Lots of alcohol.  Then Rumple remembered, from his pre-slavery days just how great he was at holding his drink.  Crap.