The wind is tethered between his knees. Gales tug at the reins, but Rumpelstiltskin forces it to keep steady. It's been too long since he's done this. He's rusty and tired, but by now he's learned that the lead-footed weariness will never leave him. The hypnotic turn of the spinning wheel does nothing to relieve him; he doubts the hunt will do any better, but at least it will satisfy the muttering voice of his patron.
He breathes in the open air, and the scents wash over him—the bitter tang of desperation, the burning spice of lust, the cloying sweetness of revenge. He sifts through them, looking for one he might like, the flavor of need that will match his mood—and then his mind reels and his blood crawls to a halt in his veins.
He knows this one.
Instinct tells him to run away. In the back of his mind, Zoso sniffs in distaste. Her again. A wiser creature would ignore her and torment some other damned soul—one that won't torment him back—but the warning comes too late. Rumpelstiltskin has already tasted the need in her soul, like iron filings on his tongue. There is no desperation in her, no bloodlust or hatred. Only pain.
Agony. Injustice. Betrayal.
He spurs his mount and follows the scent, racing like a hurricane while the world whips past. It takes him to the kingdom he's sworn to stay away from, past the castle, past the forests. The quarry is young, a fresh scar on the earth. The tower rises from the wound like a thorn.
There's more than pain in the air now. There's blood. He's choking on it before the wind can carry him to the window at the top of the tower. Dragging footsteps tattoo the stone floor, long since dried to the color of rust. The freshest trail from the trapdoor to a bed with black sheets, where a figure lies curled under a parchment-thin blanket.
Zoso considers the color— Black. A precious dye, expensive to maintain, difficult to stain—but they both see the stains. Darker splotches with a crimson undertone.
When he pulls back the sheet, she doesn't move and he doesn't recognize her. Her skin is the color of the stains on the floor, almost every inch crusted and scabbed, but beneath the mutilation he can see the curve of her jaw, the angles of her cheeks, the thin peak of her nose. His mind reels away, but Zoso continues to stare through his eyes, taking in every detail, until he comes to a bored conclusion.
Rumpelstiltskin shoves the voice away and gathers her up in his arms, blanket and all. A spasm shudders through her body as he moves her. Vengeance burns in his veins, sharp and hot against the freezing horror he hasn't felt in years.
He reins in the wind and carries her to his estate, so fast that branches are ripped from trees and thatch roofs are stripped off buildings as they pass. All the while her pulse sputters and jumps under his fingers, her breath comes shallow. Yellow puss seeps into his clothes as he carries her into his room and lays her across the bed.
The dungeon won't do. The dungeon might kill her.
He rises into a tower of his own, pours tinctures and elixers and mixes up a panacea to steady her heart and stave off infection. His hands shake. He doesn't want to know which of the miserable, useless, crippling, surging emotions is making his mind race. Maybe all of them. He can't tell anymore.
He retreats to the back of his mind, pacing and raging like a caged beast while Zoso finishes the mixture with steady hands. The old Dark One grunts in agitation when Rumpelstiltskin wrenches control back from him and races down the stairs and to his chamber. When he cradles her head in his arms and pours the panacea between her broken lips, he shudders.
He kissed those lips once. They'd been soft and sweet and suffused with the delicate scent of affection. Now they were crossed with scars, hardened by bruises and scabs. They'd scoured her lips.
They'd scoured her lips.
The ichor in his veins threatens to burn through his skin. His eyes blaze.
Zoso tsks in the back of his head. My, my. She'll have some dreadful scars when she recovers, now won't she?
Raw power wraps around Rumpelstiltzkin like a cloak. The windows shatter, the porcelain cracks, the wood of the bed twists and warps. Still unconscious, Belle whimpers in pain.
He doesn't bother with the door. He strides to the window and leaps into the empty air, harnessing the wind before his stomach has a chance to catch up with him. Inside his head, he wrestles Zoso to the ground and binds him in place.
You know how to fix this, he snarls.
His patron only smiles.
Rumpelstiltskin picks up the body with one hand. With the other he holds a vial against the fatal wound, collecting as much blood as the container will carry.
Zoso said the spell only required a few ounces, but Rumpelstiltskin is in no mood for precision. When the vial is full, he wills a stopper into it, pockets it, and hurls the body into the pile.
The fools thought they could run.
The spell requires the blood of the one who hurt her—the ones, in this case—but he would have killed them anyway. He hunted them down, scenting them like a bloodhound when they ran, digging the truth out of them in those fleeting, screaming moments before the end. He asked over and over again, but the truth didn't change.
Her father turned her out. Called her tainted, cursed, defiled. Every word that left her lips twisted into lies in his ears, and he raged against her, locked her in a tower, left the clerics to peel away the beauty that had drawn the Dark One's eye.
Rumpelstiltskin made sure his death was a slow one.
All the while Zoso cackled. Doesn't that feel better? So much more productive than brooding over a spinning wheel.
Rumpelstiltskin ignores him and steps past the pile of bodies. In his pockets jangle the vials—enough to fill every shelf in his tower, though they take up no room on his person, and he can't feel their weight as he walks. Only the wind protests the extra luggage as it carries him home, hissing and roaring. It gathers up the blood he didn't take and paints it across the sky, staining the dawn sun an evil red.
Rumpelstiltskin congratulates its artistry.
He doesn't take the time to spin new gold—and besides, he has plenty in his storerooms. More than he could ever spend, Belle had said once, and the memory of her voice leaves him writhing. He collects the tiny threads and weaves them into a golden shroud, paints them with the blood of her captors until it glistens with magic.
As he works, Zoso whispers the chant that Rumpelstiltskin suspects was written just for him:
Leave me in tears, and leave me alone
Then weave me a new skin to cover my own
He does not approve, but Zoso laughs with every syllable.
Spell finished, he carries the shroud to Belle's sleeping form. She twitches in her sleep, salt tears leaking from her eyes and stinging down her mutilated face.
Rage wells up within him again—and satisfaction, this time. They won't touch her ever again.
But when he unfurls the shroud over her form, it sits there, limp and useless as a bedsheet.
Ah ah ah, Zoso chides. Not done yet, is it?
"What is it?" Rumpelstiltskin demands. Exhaustion leaves him less than his usual eloquent self. "Why isn't it working?"
It needs the blood of the ones who hurt her. All of them.
He rushes away, tears through his belongings until he finds it—the withered, dried rose, all that remains of Gaston. He crushes the brittle petals in his hands and scatters them over the shroud.
He paces and howls, wrapping his magic close to muffle his voice and keep her from hearing. He'll go to the Queen. He'll rip her heart out of her overblown chest and wring it out. He'll tear her to pieces.
A direct attack? You're powerful, but not that powerful.
"I'm not afraid of the likes of her."
I'm sure. But there won't be enough left of you to save this one, will there? Besides, hers isn't the blood you'll need.
"It's her fault," he snarls at nothing. "She did this."
I marvel at your selective memory.
"That bitch turned her against me! Her pathetic father gave the order. Those filthy cowards did this to her. It's their fault! Theirs! Not mine!"
I never said anything about it being your fault, now did I?
"You bastard." He isn't sure who he's talking to anymore. He reaches into his chest, into the gaping emptiness where his heart used to be—he used to think it was such a clever hiding place, until he realized Belle could touch that part of him just as easily—and pulls out the dagger. His name gleams in the morning light.
A fleeting, bitter thought spasms through his mind. His leg became whole when he changed. Under the mantel of magic he's never been safer. Half-curious, he picks up Belle's limp hand and fastens it around the dagger's hilt.
She'd always wanted a chance to be brave. Now here's the chance of a thousand lifetimes—untold power. Unlimited strength.
She'd even get to start by slaying a monster.
You're not a monster.
Her voice rises up so solid and clear that he has to look down and make sure she's still asleep. For a moment he wonders if it was Zoso, dredging up a memory to stay his hand. The thought makes him shudder—his consciousness trapped in the back of Belle's mind forever—until he has to watch some other bastard kill her and take her power, take her inside his own head. Blinding jealousy and dark despair feud for control of his mind. He's not sure which is worse—forcing her to spend the rest of her existence bound to him against her will, or knowing that someone else would be bound to her next.
His hand remains wrapped around hers, holding the dagger by proxy as he slides it across his palm. Only a few ounces, Zoso said. He replaces her hand under the shroud—doesn't want to do things halfway, he remembers what happened with those swan boys, after all—and squeezes his hand into a fist. Grey-green ichor seeps from the wound and drips onto the fabric. With every drop the shroud seems to grow warmer, brighter, until the whole room is illuminated by its light. Then it melts like wax against her body, covering her with new skin—unscarred, unmarred, pink and soft in its freshness.
He watches her, his eyes never leaving her until the iron scent of pain fades into a memory. About that time he remembers that she is naked on his bed, her breasts rising and falling with every soft breath.
Perhaps waking to find him standing over her... perhaps it isn't the best way to begin a morning.
He plucks at the black sheet he brought her in, and it dissolves between his fingers. He wraps her up in the down comforter, tucks her in almost like he did his son (though with his son he never had to fight the urge to touch), and remembers himself just in time.
His lips hover a hair's breadth from her forehead before he pulls away.
That's right. No kisses. He almost forgot.
Everything comes with a price.