Part One: The god
Serving Rumpelstiltskin had surprisingly become something of a small comfort in Belle's life. It wasn't her ideal situation, to be sure; being subservient to someone who had accepted her as collateral was not what she counted as a happily ever after, but it had turned out to be much different than she'd anticipated. She cooked his meals and laundered his clothing and gathered his straw. She swept and scrubbed the floors, wrote his letters, and tended his animals. But after some time, and she could not put an exact number on it, those things transformed from chores into habits, and ones she quite enjoyed.
Wiping windows was an hour of daydreaming from a lovely castle, gathering straw was a short journey through the woods into town and meeting a manner of new and interesting people, and serving his meals was feeling the genuine warmth of taking care of someone who needed her. Before her life at the Dark Castle, no one had needed her, and Belle had always loved being useful. With each little moment, Rumpelstiltskin seemed to accept her presence easier every time, even welcoming it, and having a little bit of room to call her own, room she earned for herself that was not given to her, was a new kind of pride Belle didn't know she could have.
Being Rumpelstiltskin's caretaker had become being Rumpelstiltskin's companion. It was less of a job and more of a life she had made for herself, and she sported rougher hands and a brighter smile because of it.
Serving the Dark One was an entirely different matter.
It meant that Belle was privy to the more twisted aspects of Rumpelstiltskin. It meant she endured his frenzied tantrums, his cruel mockery, and, worst of all, his dealings with foolhardy souls. And as caretaker, Belle was responsible for entertaining and serving while Rumpelstiltskin made his deal with his visitor. More often than not those souls tended towards royalty, sometimes peasants if the deal was interesting enough, and in some cases there were supernatural beings Belle only thought existed in stories.
Oh, how she was wrong.
The first visitor gave her more of a fright than Rumpelstiltskin ever had.
Belle had been alone in the chilly great hall, the fire crackling in the hearth to warm against the gathering storm clouds that filled the windows. Listening to the thunder all morning, she'd polished the silver, dusted the collection of trinkets, beat out the rugs and curtains, and had served Rumpelstiltskin his tea. He had mentioned there was to be a visitor that day, arriving before dinner, so Belle had taken extra care with choosing what choices to set out for preparation for the meal.
With those chores taken care of, she found herself before Rumpelstiltskin's spinning wheel. Oil cloth in hand, Belle watched the spindle, careful as she turned the wheel to polish the wood. It was smooth from so many years of use, and the gentle creak it made upon turning was a small reminder that not everything kept by magic was perfect. She didn't know why, but the oddly comforting thought made her smile.
"Careful of the point."
Belle startled at the smooth, cool voice, dropping her cloth and gracelessly knocking over the stool in the process. She turned, one hand over her heart and the other holding onto one of the spokes of the wheel to face her intruder. He stood just before the fire as if he'd been there the whole afternoon with her. He was tall and slim, but broadly built against the cut of a dark robe slashed with emerald green.
Belle thought he could have been quite handsome, but he was too still, as if carved of marble.
"I beg your pardon?" she asked not a little breathlessly. It was rare that she was taken by surprise anymore after living with Rumpelstiltskin for so long- he often appeared out of thin air beside her while she cooked or cleaned, and for weeks it had scared her violently, and her complaints had only been met with a manic giggle. But she'd gotten used to it.
To have a stranger do it, well, that was different.
"The point," the man nodded his head to the needle of the spinning wheel, entwining his fingers at his back as he slowly moved towards the platform. "As I recall, it befell an unfortunate young princess once to prick her finger and fall down dead."
Belle swallowed thickly past her heart as he approached, coming to stand just in front of her on the platform. His eyes were incredibly blue and never left the needle. "Fate is never kind to a curious woman, is it?" His gaze flickered up to her face, and Belle felt heat bloom in her cheeks.
"I think it depends on the woman and the object of her curiosity," Belle said slowly, her words hushed. Behind her, her fingers tightened around the spoke, her other hand smoothing down the rippling blue fabric of her dress. She felt lightheaded and uncomfortable under the stranger's quiet scrutiny, yet smiled, "But I don't think the curiosity of men has quite worked out in our favor, either."
The man inclined his head as he continued to study her, before his own smile curved his lips, and Belle felt quite like a mouse being charmed by a snake. She tasted magic, or at least something like it in the air, a mix of ozone and earth and power, and she knew it was the time to call for Rumpelstiltskin.
"Your master, he's quite powerful, isn't he?" the stranger stepped up on the platform, close enough that his arm almost brushed Belle's. The closeness of another person was almost foreign to her after being so long without human contact, but this was not the same. There was such a lack of feeling to the man, but Belle wasn't sure if it was because no feeling existed, or he was simply very talented at disguising it.
"He is," she spoke cautiously, her eyes flickering to his hands. If he were to harm her, though she did not find him aggressive, he stood a head taller than her, and she knew she would not be able to overpower such a man. She would have to rely on quickness. "He's the most powerful man in the realms."
The man's blue eyes slanted over her face and his smile was back, slow and pleased. "That you know of."
The stranger made to pluck the gold that had gathered on the spindle, and Belle bristled. Her own petite hand caught his wrist, and she used a gentle force to turn him a step back, placing herself with little grace between him and the gleaming thread. He was an intruder, and though she could only, at her best, stall until Rumpelstiltskin arrived, she would make sure the stranger would not touch what belonged to her employer, but the spinning wheel was without question forbidden. It was Rumpelstiltskin's, and Belle would not have someone else touching what didn't belong to them in what she considered her home.
"Be that as it may, I suggest we not test the theory," she said, and plucked the gold aside. She carefully curled it so it wouldn't catch on anything, then sat upon the wheel, planting herself in between the stranger's way to get any closer.
Belle only realized after a few moments of tight, tense silence that he was staring at her. She looked up and found his eyes narrowed, his lips slightly parted, and his hand frozen in midair when she has touched him. Belle's fingers curled into the filmy white fabric of her apron, and she licked her lips against the hammering of her heart. Watching his fingers furl, Belle's stomach tightened and supposed that this stranger was not a man easily rebuked.
Slowly, their visitor knelt before her, and Belle was more than acutely aware of his hands sliding to rest on either side of her perch on the wheel. He leaned further into her space as if drinking the air she breathed, his eyes searching her face with such rapt attention that she wondered if he could read her thoughts. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, but she did not lean away from him. Instead, Belle raised her chin carefully against the intimidation and the twitch at the corner of his mouth seemed amused.
"Oh yes, I see why you are his," he whispered not unlike a man admiring a work of art. Belle could only think about remembering to breathe deep and slow. He tilted his head, his dark hair brushing his shoulders. His voice, velvety and intimate wrapped around her like a ribbon, "What are you, I wonder?"
Belle had not the presence of mind to answer, so fallen beneath whatever spell his voice was casting. But as luck would have it, she did not need to.
Two warm hands rested on Belle's shoulders from behind, "She is mine."
The heat of a presence both powerful and ancient pressed at her back, and Belle's eyes slid closed in gratefulness. Sighing softly, she resisted the urge to lean back into the welcome warmth.
Rumpelstiltskin held her gently but firm, his touch searing through the simple fabric of her dress. His thumbs created circles behind her shoulders, deliberately careful movements. His voice was, for the first time Belle had ever witnessed in front of another guest, controlled and deeper in register. "And I think next time, should you choose to present yourself so rudely unannounced in front of the lady of my castle, you have the courtesy of introducing yourself."
The guest rose from crouching before Belle, his smile melted from his cool face. "I thought I was to be expected."
"By me, you were," Rumpelstiltskin squeezed Belle's shoulders, and when the man stepped back she all but sagged under his touch as the weave of the enchantment was severed. "I am the one they whisper Deal-maker and Dark One. Within my walls, you are guest, but you will do well to remember this."
The cold blue gaze flickered down to Belle. Devoid of mirth or amusement, their guest nodded, "Of course."
For a moment, all three of them were silent, waiting, until Rumpelstiltskin leaned down to Belle's shoulder. His lips brushed the hair near her ear, his breath warm against her skin. His hands slipped from her shoulders down over her arms, and it was so intimate, Belle shivered. "Bring us tea, dearie, if you don't mind."
Powerless to speak, Belle nodded numbly and stood on shaky legs. She stole a glance at Rumpelstiltskin, his intimidating figure making a fine cut in gold silk, black brocade and leather. He caught her eyes. Folding his hands behind his back, he nodded once in reassurance, and Belle restrained herself from hurrying from the room, and from looking behind her as the doors closed at her leave.
What she was feeling wasn't fear, and it puzzled Belle to feel something she couldn't put a name to. She took her time preparing the tea tray, arranging the delicate painted porcelain, accounting for the sugar, honey, and lemon, and caught herself, making sure to add the irregular third cup. She no longer had to remind herself to choose the chipped cup for Rumpelstiltskin, and it was pleasantly familiar to know how he took his tea, plain and strong with one lemon slice.
With more confidence in her posture and a slightly restless mind and heart, Belle carried the silver tea tray back into the great hall. Both men (for she would not think of Rumpelstiltskin as anything less no matter his opinion on the subject) now sat at the table, Rumpelstiltskin in his normal placing at the head and their guest to his left. The atmosphere was calmer but no less tense, and she knew they'd just finished having words about something from the way Rumpelstiltskin steepled his fingers and looked up at her arrival with a greater ease than his rigid stance she had left him in.
As Belle set the tray down, busying her hands with their daily custom, she couldn't help but notice the visitor's fingers curling on the polished oak of the table. She felt Rumpelstiltskin's eyes on her face, and when she turned to serve him first, she met his gaze and found the most peculiar look of pleased and admiring amusement. She couldn't tell if he was going to laugh at her and call her a fool, or praise her and kiss her hand. It was not an unbecoming look, and Belle suppressed her own smile as she nudged his teacup closer.
When she turned back to the tray, Belle hesitated, glancing at their strange visitor. He was running a hand through his hair and looking down at the floor, his other hand tapping his fingers upon his knee. Belle didn't know if he even liked tea, or if she should be presumptuous and simply serve him. After his effect on her before, she was less enthusiastic to engage in any conversation with the man. Belle looked at Rumpelstiltskin for help, but he was smiling now in the most devious way, and she realized that he would not help her. Now that she was out of any variation of danger, Rumpelstiltskin was going to see what she would do.
Well, it was her home, now, and whether their guest was a demon or a sorcerer or an ogre, she would not let them bully her into feeling uneasy. With resolve, Belle poured tea, leaving it plain, and set it before their guest. She ignored him as he looked up in surprise and sat down at her own place at Rumpelstiltskin's right, the seat closest to the fire, pouring her own cup.
It wasn't until her second spoon of honey when their guest's voice, full of distaste, asked flatly, "What is that."
Belle looked up with feigned innocence, carefully stirring her spoon. "Do you not know what tea is?"
The stranger narrowed his blue eyes at her. "Of course, I do. Why did you give it to me."
Shrugging her dainty shoulders in a rather unladylike habit, Belle raised her own rim to her lips to cover her smile and answered sweetly, "You seemed like you needed it."
Rumpelstiltskin snorted appreciatively, and it was all Belle could do to keep her smile down as the man glanced between them, the joke utterly lost on him. He cast a dark look at Belle before turning to Rumpelstiltskin, saying, "I expected privacy."
"What you expect and what I offer are two very different things," the Dark One lilted. He set his cup down and threaded his fingers together, resting them over his chest. "Have no fear, I will solve your little problem, and none shall be the wiser."
"How do I know your lady can be trusted?"
Belle pretended not to be miffed that she was being talked about as if she were vapor, sipping her tea primly. She'd been present for almost all of Rumpelstiltskin's deals he'd made at home, and at first she'd been uncomfortable to be in the room with the Dark One and the desperate soul he fed off of. She had made her concerns known to him after the second encounter. She had not wanted to know about his more conniving whiles, and she certainly didn't want to witness the gravity of another person's need.
But Rumpelstiltskin's reply had been simple, yet sense enough to soothe Belle's worries, "It does my patron a bigger favor, in the end, dearie, when you're present. They seem to feel more at ease with another human in the room, bright and precious as you are. You put their fears to rest that I would skin them for their pelts and take their virgins in the night."
Preoccupied with her own embarrassment in witnessing, Belle had sputtered, "But isn't a- a more fearful person easier to deal with?"
Rumpelstiltskin had smiled a dark smile, "'Tis easier for the spider to feed when the fly is stunned, than wrestle with its struggle," he'd drawn his scaly claws through her chestnut curls laying over her shoulder and leaned closer into her, "You are the finest honey to catch with, dearie."
Rumpelstiltskin giggled maniacally, jarring Belle back to the present and began tapping his fingers along the porcelain ridges of the chipped cup. His eyes, though, held no mirth. In fact, they were quite cold, gleaming like the wintry lake of the estate, set upon their guest without question, "You presume I keep distrustful company?"
Belle felt anxiety prickle up her spine like needles. She'd never seen Rumpelstiltskin look so cruelly delighted, and she felt a rush of relief knowing this change in his demeanor was not directed at her.
Their guest seemed more at ease than she was, sitting back in his chair. "Even the closest kept company can betray. Blood bonds are known for it, family especially. Those you live with, dine with, speak with," the stranger's eyes flickered to Belle, "Amuseyourself with."
"You mean love," Belle narrowed her eyes.
Their guest inclined his head toward her with a satisfied glance. "If you want to put a name to it."
"Names have power, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin warned, a neutral contribution to the topic. His eyes were cast down upon his cup, his finger tracing the rim with adept precision.
"I should hope so. Love deserves a name," Belle didn't realize she was smiling until after she'd started speaking, losing herself in the truth of her words, "It's pure and honest, something no one can take away from you, but to be given freely. Even the darkest of souls, with love, have light."
The man across from her stared for the longest moment before he snickered, and though Belle was not prone to violence, the sound was so mocking that she wished she could hurl her cup at him. He rubbed his chin, leaning his elbow on the armrest to gaze at Belle. When she remained austere, his smile withered, and he met her in severity.
"Oh, pretty little thing," he crooned, his blue eyes seeing right through to her heart. "Love is an illusion," warm breath on the back of her neck made Belle yelp in fright, and a reflection of the stranger leered over her shoulder, whispering, "A quick catch of light in a mirror, not a truth and certainly not pure, but an instrument to be played and a tool to be used," another clone of the man leaned against her chair beside her, smirking down at Belle with a cool assurance. "Ward yourself from love, little thing. You may see it as a flower, if you wish-it may even grow for you."
A hand from the spectral behind her caressed her hair, and Belle jumped in her seat, "But that flower will procure thorns and brambles, twisting and twining about your ankles..."
The still seated guest sitting across from her smiled widely, flashing his teeth in a feral grin at the sight of the tears pricking Belle's eyes, "And when you stumble, there is no rising again."
Belle swallowed hard, voice rough with emotion, "I believe in love even when I don't feel it."
The man laughed again, a handsome sound if not for how his smile twisted his face and left his eyes empty. "Believing in a feeling does not make it true."
"Love is not just a feeling," Belle's reply was quiet, but scathing. "It is something you do."
"Enough," Rumpelstiltskin slammed his cup upon the table, and the two mirrors at Belle's chair vanished, leaving the three of them alone again. The Dark One glared at his visitor, setting him with a wild gaze, off centered, pupils dilated and mismatched. "You will behave yourself in my presence."
"We were conversing, I don't see the harm."
"You were projecting your own troublesome family problems is what you were doing, dearie," Rumpelstiltskin bared his horrible teeth, twittering his fingers. "Don't think I didn't notice."
The two men watched each other for longer than Belle could hold her breath, and it was surprisingly Rumpelstiltskin who spoke first, his voice masked with a merry lightness that told the listener to be wary, "If you should want our transaction to go through smoothly, I suggest you pay the lady an apology."
When both men looked at Belle, she slipped on a mask of cool neutrality. Their guest seemed to regard her as nothing more than a bug he'd rather swat aside, but with a roll of his eyes he muttered, "My sincere regrets for any distress I may have caused you."
It was not genuine at all, and Belle was willing to bet her first born that it had been said with more venom than sincerity, but it seemed to have the desired effect of dispelling the remaining tension in the air. Rumpelstiltskin clapped his hands together, leaping up from his chair with buoyancy. The darkness had all but receded from his face for the moment, and Belle relaxed her posture, only realizing then that she had been gripping her teacup in a white knuckled grasp. Setting it upon the table, her fingers sore, she flexed her hands nervously as their visitor stood as well.
"I shall expect results, as you know," the man in the dark robes passed Rumpelstiltskin, flattening his palms together in a pensive gesture as he left the table. Belle made to stand, but Rumpelstiltskin put his hand out to stay her and turned on his heel, following his patron to the wide double doors.
"Yes, yes, of course," the Dark One twittered, his voice almost lost beneath the sound of the oncoming storm as thunder struck. "Let's get you home before your brother comes looking..."
Belle frowned in suspicion, watching them go. Turning, Rumpelstiltskin smiled cryptically at Belle before waving his hands and closing the doors behind him, leaving his caretaker in the great hall alone with a crackling fire.
Her bones felt like water, and the room seemed oddly tilted. She was not a confrontational person by nature, yet the words she'd exchanged in the heat of the moment with Rumpelstiltskin's guest left her feeling sated and self-assured. She hoped that her outburst had not soiled the deal, but she would never take back the words she'd said.
She was in the middle of gathering the cups and reassembling the tray when the doors opened again and Rumpelstiltskin returned alone, hands behind his back and his lips pursed in a not-quite-smile. He seemed pleased enough, and Belle looked down at her occupation, rearranging the silver ware and the teapot to avoid looking at him. "All is well?"
"Is it?" he challenged, and she felt his presence again, a pleasing warmth she couldn't put a name to pressing near her side. It was intimate in no way a caress or loving touch ever could be. She felt his gaze on her face, and Belle stilled her hands, laying her palms flat on the table.
"I spoke out of turn," she conceded, her eyes flickering up hesitantly. "I'm sorry."
"No need to apologize, dearie, you quite flustered him," her employer giggled, his eyes dancing and not leaving her face. He was practically bouncing on his feet.
"Well he seemed collected enough," she snorted.
"Master of illusion, that one," Rumpelstiltskin nodded, stepping away and meandering to his spinning wheel, righting the stool she'd knocked aside earlier. "But rest assured, he was quite ready to make a second deal."
"Oh? Whatever for?" Belle frowned, lifting the tray.
Rumpelstiltskin tilted his head to the side, grinning wryly as he took his seat at his wheel. "Why, for you, dearie."
"Me!" Belle all but squeaked and very nearly dropped the tray. She gaped at Rumpelstiltskin helplessly, and his blatant nonchalance did not soothe her shock. Even the thunder rolling outside in dark clouds did not jarr her.
"Oh yes, he was quite prepared to whisk you away. Spoke of making you a goddess, giving you a throne," Rumpelstiltskin shrugged his shoulders too carefreely, staying pointedly faced toward his wheel. "Of course, all know that I do not barter pieces of my collection."
"I'm your maid," Belle protested.
Rumpelstiltskin giggled, "Hedidn't know that," he hummed at the back of his throat. "He seemed to believe the lady of my castle was more than met the eye."
Belle's stomach was coiled in a fit of nerves, but watching the rigid posture and jerky movements of her master's hand on the wheel, which was normally so relaxed and smooth, she narrowed her eyes. "And you refused him?"
The idea of Rumpelstiltskin putting any sort of claim on her was, against her better judgment, thrilling. They had grown quite close in the past few months, dancing around each other for fear of getting too close...
Belle pushed aside the thought, feeling like a foolish girl. He had only done it to protect her, nothing more.
"I offered a substitute that of which he was not interested in."
On quiet feet, Belle crept closer, holding the tea tray tight in her hands until she stood just below the platform, trying to catch a glimpse of Rumpelstiltskin's profile that was so tactfully shielded by his hair. "You deal with some very dark men," she ventured.
Rumpelstiltskin scoffed, "Yes, well, he has some past troubles to attend to." He made quick work of recounting the tale to her, which left her mind reeling. Witnessing magic was one thing, but seeing a true legend, one far older than Rumpelstiltskin himself, left her quite speechless.
"How terrible," Belle muttered, shaking her head slowly as she thought on the story. "The poor thing."
Rumpelstiltskin's hands froze on the wheel before he spun on his stool to face her. His hands rested on his knees as he gazed at her with a face masked in bemusement. But something deeper lingered on the edges when he said, "Dearie, you have a very odd perception of men and their plights."
"He has done dark things," Belle allowed with a nod, her eyes downcast in thought. "But his father let him go so easily. I can not fault him for such a sin as regretting to not belong to a family," she shrugged her shoulders, "I should think the true villain is his father for letting him go."
When she looked up, Rumpelstiltskin had turned back to his spinning, though his elbows were on his knees and his hands were clasped together, gazing out the window. His shoulders dropped, and he leaned forward as if he were ill. "Rumpelstiltskin?"
"Run along now, dearie," the Dark One said, his words spoken carefully as if he was fighting not to say more. Or perhaps willing himself to say anything at all.
Belle felt at a loss as if she'd done something wrong. She could sense the slide of Rumpelstiltskin's mood like descending piano keys into something hurtful and chaotic. She hated to take that moment to retreat to the kitchen, like she was running from him, but her heart lightened when she closed the door behind her to the resuming sound of the creaking spinning wheel.
Good, Belle thought, perhaps he will forget.
Remembering the mirrored spectrals whispering in her ear, touching her hair, and that mocking smile, Belle vowed she would not interfere in another of Rumpelstiltskin's deals again.
A/N: Thank you for reading. Reviews are always appreciated.