"Rumpel, dear, I need your help." It's three in the afternoon and he's at his spinning wheel. He's always at his spinning wheel these days, if not working a deal.
It doesn't help him forget.
"You need to learn how to knock." He doesn't turn around; there's no need. He knows that voice, and even if he didn't there's only one person in the seven kingdoms that calls him, the Dark One, 'Rumpel.'
"At least I use the front door, unlike some people I could name."
"Still upset that I interrupted you and the boy toy that one time?" It was familiar, this back and forth, what passed for idle chatter between them. It was almost what one would call friendly conversation, but for the fact that neither of them had friends.
"It was twice, and popping into a lady's bedchamber is rude." She's closer behind him now. He can hear the thud and creak as she sets something down, and a clang of china as she picks up the pot he warmed an hour ago, and hasn't gotten back to. Tea holds little interest for him these days, but he can't seem to get out of the habit of making a pot every afternoon.
"If there was a lady here I'd apologize. And it was three times." He looks over his shoulder, a snide grin curling the corners of his mouth. "You're forgetting the time I found you in the dining room. Very unhygienic, that."
"I didn't come here to be insulted. I came..."
"Yes, I heard you the first time. My help, you said, which sounds like you're looking for a favor. I'm surprised, your majesty." The last time they'd spoken it had been insults and threats through a mirror. Six months had passed, and he's no more disposed to help her now than he was then.
"You're the only one I know that trades in children. I could always toss it in the river if you're not interested." She sounds as if she is talking about nothing more than a pair of old shoes. She never had shown any interest in children. He, however, feels the wood of his spinning wheel dig into his hands as he struggles not to react.
"Your little wolf cub is a fertile thing, isn't he? I always assumed that your womb was too poisonous to carry a child." There's a flinch, just a trace of an arrow better aimed than he'd thought. She'd considered carrying the stable boy's child, he'd wager, and still remembers enough that it aches. But the ghost of a child never conceived can hardly counter that of a real boy, breathing somewhere in an unreachable world, and he feels little sympathy for her.
"A homeless wretch stumbled into the outer keep, three days ago. She died, but not before she'd birthed a mewling little urchin." She smiles, lazily, and flicks her hand in the direction of the basket on the table. "It's such a little thing that it was hardly worth bringing with me. It would probably be a mercy to put the thing out of its misery."
"What do you know of mercy?" He can hear it now, the faint stirring of air being drawn in and out of tiny lungs. It makes him want to knock the teacup out of Regina's hand and push her away from the basket, to prevent her from tainting the babe with her vileness. "Go. I'll find the child a home."
"And in return?" She's goading him. She doesn't care about a struggling infant. Whether she used it as an excuse to dig at him with her claws or has another reason he doesn't care to know. He just wants her gone.
"Not seeing your face, dearie, is enough for me. Go." He waves her away; it's just a gesture but he's tempted to put some power behind it. Seeing her literally swept across the great room would be amusing.
"I'll see myself out." She sets down the tea she never drank, moving without hurry just to be contrary. "There is a matter about a mermaid I was hoping we could discuss; perhaps next week would be better?"
"The sixth of never would be better, but we'll see." He stands at the table's edge, making himself tea. It's better not to show interest in the child until Regina's gone. The fact that she knows he'll protect children is enough of a weakness without her actually seeing the way he cares for the ones left in his care until he can find them a good home. Children are his soft underbelly, and it's not wise to let that get around.
He waits until the last of her black gown vanishes around the corner before abandoning his cup and gesturing with his hand, curved fingers beckoning the basket. It slides down the table from where it was placed, stopping before it comes to the edge. There is, indeed, a babe inside. A newborn, give or take a few days; he's taken enough from undeserving mothers who would give up their children for riches to know the look. There's a dark thatch of hair, and pale skin. The tiny eyes that peek up at him are blue, but the babe is young enough that chances are the color will change. Too bad; it's a pretty blue.
Regina did not tell him if it was a girl child or boy. That's something he'll need to figure out soon, but the babe would not be so quiet if its diaper was in need of changing. He'll learn then. He won't figure out the child's name so easily, but that's not a bad thing. Names are precious; if a dying mother gave the child one that was a secret between them, and new parents would have that gift when they pledged to care for the babe as their own.
"I know I don't look like much, but you're better off with me until we can find you a home. That vile woman's no better than rat poison." The infant, agreeing with him about Regina he was sure, let out a thin cry. Rumpelstiltskin reaches down to calm the child, his thumb barely brushing against a tiny cheek.
The bellow he releases bounces off the walls and out the doors, half wounded animal and half wrathful god. In the next instant he's tearing the door off of a black carriage like it's paper and pulling out the woman inside.
"Where is she?" With a cloud of purple smoke a knife appears in his hand. He takes great delight in pressing it to her throat; though she covers it quickly, he knows fear when he sees it.
"Lose the little brat already, dear? How careless of you." She tilts her chin up, looking like bravery, but he's sure she's trying to get away from the nip of the knife's sharp edge.
"Did you really think I wouldn't know?" It's taken a moment to react, but two of the Queen's guard make the mistake of touching him, probably worried about her wrath if they don't try and do something. With the wave of his free hand he frees them of that concern. Now their only thought is to gasp for air; fish out of water don't live very long.
"What's there to know about a whore's bastard child?" Her laugh is cut short, literally. There's a warm scent of coppery blood as a two inch wound just under her jaw line drips freely. It's not deep enough to worry about bleeding out, but the next one could be.
"The next one's across your cheek, dearie. No one will ever think you the fairest of them all once I get done with you. If there's anything left to talk about, that is." He's sure it would be easy enough to cut her into pieces. He's had dinners he felt worse about butchering.
"Her father took her back, did you know that? She was under his protection, and safe. But then she couldn't hide it any longer; she carried the demon's spawn, and not even a father's love could protect her from that revelation. He locked her in a tower and sent in clerics to cleanse her soul with scourges and flaying. When her time came he drove her from his kingdom, rather than let the demon be born on his soil and curse the land." She barely blinks as she tells the tale. He doesn't even breathe.
"She died." They're even and emotionless, those two little words that take the bottom out of his world. "She took her last breath as the child took its first."
"You're lying." He doesn't even think about the denial before it's already passed his lips.
"Am I?" He's stepped back from her just enough that she can safely dab at the blood on her neck with a handkerchief. The white cloth runs red with blood. He suddenly can't stomach the sight of her.
"Get in your carriage and flee. Now. If you're wise you won't come back." The urge to just gut her now and be done with it is strong, but he refuses to return to the castle with blood on his hands.
"Such a fuss over one little girl." She's quick to slink away in her carriage, though, not even stopping to pick up the door. Or the soldiers turned into carp. He only waits until he's certain she's leaving before popping into the great hall again.
The child, the girl, is quiet. His hands tremble as he touches her. It's still there, that tingling in his fingertips, the recognition. Sir Maurice of the Marchlands might have considered that the child of Rumpelstiltskin to be a demon, but he can only see his Belle in her. He can only sense innocence, purity, and frailty. She's human, this child. There's nothing of the Dark One about her; it's the first time in six months that he has something to be grateful for.
"Synnove," he whispers. Gift of the Sun. Her mother had brought him the sun, and taken the light with her when she left. Now he has it back and he's never letting go. With gentle hands, Rumpelstiltskin picks up his daughter and cradles her against his heart