A/N: And the final chapter is here! I apologize for the wait, but I hope it's the conclusion that everyone has been waiting for. Thank you to all my lovely reviewers who have been so kind, supportive, and enthusiastic about this story. Without you, it wouldn't be what it is.
The holy man
That night was long in it's shadows and heated in magic. Belle's eyes rolled open through a haze to find herself abed in her room, half clothed in darkness save for what little the fire illuminated. Rumpelstiltskin sat on her bedside, humming something in a voice deeper than any she'd ever heard him use. It was hypnotic, the way his trembling voice tickled the notes, dancing just above her eyes. But she didn't have the energy to focus on him or what was happening, because the pain she felt was overwhelming, and it was all over. Her skin felt as though it were stretching tighter, her bones creaking and bending, her insides rearranging themselves. She tried to call out in her pain, and couldn't.
Rumpelstiltskin sat so close to her, but seemed more preoccupied with his needle and thread, his half-moon spectacles tipped low on his nose. She ended up making a strangled sound at the back of her throat, and his gaze flickered in the shadows of the fire to meet her face before he leaned up over her, one hand just barely touching her cheek. "Belle," he murmured softly, and she closed her eyes, feeling a tear escape down the side of her face. "No need to be frightened now, dove, the worst has past," he said, and his voice was still deep, more man than imp. She wanted to open her eyes, but now that she'd closed them, it felt too difficult. "Rest now."
Belle wished she could say something to him, at least nod her head to let him know she was grateful for his care. His fingertips trailed down her jaw before he pulled back, but he didn't move from his perch at her side, and soon continued his humming. Her body seemed to be at odds with what it needed most, to resist the pain she felt, or to give into the sleep she craved. Thankfully, her mind surrendered for her, and she fell into a dreamless spell.
"There's a sweet dove, come now, open your eyes," cooed the Dark One, and when Belle was able to lift her gaze again, she saw first the light had shifted within the room. It must have been daylight, she realized groggily. Rumpelstiltskin had drawn most of the curtains, yet kept one open to let some of the light in. His warm hand cupped the back of her neck as he led her to sit up higher against the pillows. A whimper escaped her lips before she could help it, and Rumpelstiltskin crooned softly, his thumb tracing her ear gently, "Shhh, there you are."
Her mouth felt full of cotton, her voice rusted from disuse. She couldn't tell how long she'd slept, but she was sure it had been more than one night. Her eyes watered against the cool air that met her flushed face from her sweaty sleep, and Rumpelstiltskin's face softened at whatever he found in her, then. With precarious gentleness, he took both her hands cupped in his and held them together, warm and comforting, and pressed his lips to her knuckles, whispering, "Oh, Belle, I'm so sorry."
Belle's eyes drift for a moment from his earnest gaze to settle on their hands. He had such lovely hands, for all that they were unattractive with darkened, claw-like nails. His fingers were slender, his touch gentle and warm. The green and grey and gold scales of his skin made pretty patterns against the candlelight, and Belle was quite transfixed for a while just watching the shimmer before she saw the hands he was holding were old and withered. Jerking and trying to pull from him, Belle made to cry out but only managed to croak hoarsely. Her arms ached and she realized those hands, the old, worn skin and knotted fingers he held clasped so tightly were hers.
"Belle, don't-" Rumpelstiltskin pleaded, holding her hands tight but gentle before shifting closer. Belle looked up at him, her heart twisting so painfully that she felt unable to breathe, her eyes searching his face frantically for an answer. Rumpelstiltskin swallowed hard, the lines around his eyes tightening, and when he spoke his voice was higher in pitch, anxious and twittering, "Don't worry now, you're already getting better. But you have to trust me, see?" With care, he slid his hands about to show her palms to her. Through heavy eyes, Belle could see the tiny lines and wrinkles moving, slowly pulling themselves taunt, restoring her youth.
"Draining ilife s dark magic," Rumpelstiltskin whispered, but Belle could hear the weakness in his voice. "Taking a person's will from them, their youth. It- it wasn't meant for you Belle, her potion was a nasty trick," he licked his dry lips quickly, his eyes trained on the quilt that he'd tucked up tight beneath her arms.
"But-" Oh Gods, her voice! It was the tired lull of a crone, and Belle felt she'd be sick with herself if she continued. Taking a deep breath, she whispered, "But it was meant for someone."
Rumpelstiltskin wouldn't meet her eyes, guilt turning his lips down at the corners. He rested his hand on her leg, his wiry hair shielding most of his profile when he murmured, "Yes."
It was an effort to breathe, much less talk, and Belle found herself having to close her eyes again to focus on that alone. She'd just woken, yet felt so tired, so dreadfully tired. "Am I dying?" she whispered, her bones aching as they changed and realigned.
"Oh no," shifting gently, Rumpelstiltskin leaned over her. She could smell his breath, warm with spirits, brushing her face. His voice was too light to be truthful of his feelings, that much Belle knew for certain. "No, no. You're coming back, and that's always harder than leaving."
"How would I stay with you forever if I were to leave one day," Belle asked softly, moving her hand along the quilt until she could curl her petite touch about his finger like a child. Her voice did not disturb her so long as she whispered. "You can't stop time, Rumpelstiltskin," she matched his lightness in tone, opening her eyes to meet his face. "She was right about that much."
Rumpelstiltskin's gaze was distant, watching Belle softly, his face a mixture of guilt and such deep sadness that Belle knew even if she loved him with all her heart she could never ease it on her own. But he smiled with it, as if taking a spoon of honey with the pain he swallowed. "Perhaps I can."
Belle felt herself wilt in weariness, and she let her head sink back into her pillows, closing her eyes. She had not forgotten his cruelty, his sneering despisement, after they laughed in the face of the stars. She had not forgotten how he had bared his teeth and flashed his eyes and did everything within his power to push her away. His arrogance in magic burned those wounds and reopened them afresh on her heart, and Belle tried to shift her weight away from him, to flee from his warmth and sight. "You shouldn't," she murmured, her eyes falling closed. "What has time ever done to you?"
His breathing caught in his chest, and she felt him go immediately still beside her where his hip pressed against her leg. She could see beneath her lashes his black nailed hand curling in the downy sheets in front of her. And then his mad, twittering giggle broke the silence, a nervous manic sound that made her want to curl up and bury her face away from him, any sincerity she had hoped for broken under that horrible mockery. He leaned over her, his lips tickling the wispy curls about her ear, "Don't ask questions you don't wish to know the answers to, little dove."
Belle turned her face back towards him, but all she could see was ugly, mottled red that boiled under her anger. She wanted to strike him so badly her hands shook, but she dare not. She wished she could shake him, slap him, jarr him as much as he delighted in pushing her away for the sake of his own self-sustainment. "I don't," with a deep breath, Belle began to push herself up. Rumpelstiltskin's face changed in one smooth motion, from scorn to concern, but she swept his hands from her arms until she could prop herself up against the headboard of the bed, glaring at him steadfastly. She was out of breath from the exertion, but that did not cool the anger in her voice when she asked, "Am I a dog?"
Rumpelstiltskin startled, his eyes widening almost in stunned fear of her passion, but whether he was brave enough to not run or too scared to think of doing so, Belle wasn't sure. His voice was a throaty croak, "What?"
"I said am I dog?" Belle repeated, narrowing her eyes. "Because you seem to live under the misdirection that you may pet me and care for me at your leisure, giving me the basic necessities to survive but brushing me off when I try to return affection- of any kind!" Belle took a deep breath, but it did nothing for her nerves, her resolve steeling under his abashed face. She spoke quieter, slower and more deliberate, "I will not return after you kick me, Rumpelstiltskin, do you understand?"
Rumpelstiltskin licked his lips nervously, bringing his hands to the center of his lap to clasp for lack of knowing where to put them. "N-No- rather, yes," he frowned deeply, his curly hair framing his face and providing him a shield. He looked so small, so little against the rising darkness of the bedroom that Belle's anger crumbled and only left her hurt behind.
"I don't understand what it was that happened after that woman-" Belle stopped, remembering his harsh words to the mother who'd tried to steal Belle's youth. "-what could have... changed your mind."
At Rumpelstiltskin's very shy glance up, Belle added, "About me."
"Oh...Belle," he sat forward as if he would like to touch her face but held his hands fast confined to his lap, his mouth quivering in the need to speak but unsure where to begin. "You must- you must understand," he said slowly, barely a whisper. He dropped his eyes once more, and she could see how tense he was, how ready to run and how hard it was for him to stay. "There are things of my past, terrible things that never truly die that remind me of what I've lost. Of the man I was," he hesitated, his eyes widening on her as if he truly saw her for the first time, before dropping his gaze apologetically, "If you can say I was even that much."
Belle pressed her lips together tightly, but kept quiet. She wished to touch his hair, but she dare not reach out to him now. The space between them was like the cracked spine of a book, and Belle knew they needed to reach the end of this horrible precipice they danced near before they could finally close it.
"A man who cared too much and lost what he hoped to protect," he murmured, tracing a pattern on the quilt beside her knee. "And there are things-and people, that remind me, through their wickedness that mirrors my own, that to not hope, to not have to protect the treasures one cares for-" he was struggling so hard for words, Belle wished she could help him find them. It hurt to see him so lost in himself. "-When you have nothing precious, there is very little you stand to lose."
"And am I so precious as all that, Rumpelstiltskin?" Belle asked, her eyes softening. She reached her hand up, then, cupping his cheek. "Enough to warrant your sorrow, your wrath?"
"It has taken me three hundred years and a curse to find a bit of kindness, that of which I don't deserve in you," Rumpelstiltskin sighed, leaning his face into her fingers and closing his eyes as if the mere touch pained him. When he looked at her again, she could see nothing but anguish. "Yet there is nothing in all the worlds that I could ever do to keep from loving you, Belle. And nothing, in return, that I wouldn't do to protect all you've given me," he stopped, his voice so quiet that she almost couldn't make out the words. "It's only a matter of time, then, before I lose you, too."
Belle's head had begun to ache, growing cloudy. Her eyes slipped closed, and it was a labor to open them again. When she did, Rumpelstiltskin's sadness was gone and he was smiling gently, and moved his hand across her body over the sheets, warming on top of her wrist. "Sleep," he cooed, his voice lulling her and willing her eyes to slip closed again. "The next time you wake, all will be mended, Belle... I promise."
Belle's eyes flew open and she gasped, her heart pounding in her breast. She stared up at the canopy over her bed for a very long moment, blinking against the dying sunlight outside. She had dreamed of something horrible and had ached all through her sleep, unable to wake up. Her dreams had been swarmed with twisting shadows, and it was all very muddled when she tried to think on it. Wiggling her fingers and toes, she felt weak, still slightly sore but rested, as if she hadn't moved in a very long time.
But something had woken her up, and it was not her dreams.
Just as she began to stir from underneath the bed clothes, a deep pounding seemed to reverberate through the whole castle. Belle froze, her heart stopping at the noise. She'd heard it once before, the sunny afternoon Rumpelstiltskin had given her a rose.
Someone was knocking upon the castle doors.
Belle slowly sat up until she was perched on the edge of the grand double bed, blinking against the dim candlelight. All the blood rushed to her head, and she put her hand to her brow to quell the dizziness. There had been too many visitors to the Dark Castle, in her opinion, and if the trespasser decided to give up, then all the better. It didn't help that Rumpelstiltskin kept his locks so flimsy, as if so desperate for company he'd admit even the people threatening to kill him.
Then again, perhaps that was exactly the reason he did so.
The pounding continued, and Belle startled when she realized that the visitor couldn't get inside, which meant Rumpelstiltskin had actually locked his castle doors. Since she'd come to the castle, the only time he'd ever done that were the times he'd left on a deal, leaving his maid all alone but safely locked away from intruders. Rumpelstiltskin didn't just leave-if there was one thing he did, without fail, it was that he told her when he was going away on business. She may not be privy to the details, but he always told her when he was traveling. Belle hardly thought he'd up and run when she was bed ridden. Something was wrong, and Belle was alone with a visitor at the castle.
Gathering herself slowly to her feet, Belle was able to shuffle to the end of the bed where Rumpelstiltskin had deposited her clothing over the small settee. She supposed she should feel scandalized that he had changed her, but with his tendency to use magic for every little chore, she doubted he'd been more inappropriate than simply magicking her into her nightgown. Taking the thick blue skirts that swept the floor and her buttercream blouse in hand, she slipped them both on tenderly, still feeling strangely sore, then slid her feet into the slippers just underneath the seat. As she turned, her heart stopped to see her own reflection; her face was just visible in the glass panes of her room's windows. Her hair was in a state of disarray, but her face was youthful again. If she had shadows beneath her eyes, she couldn't see them.
Rumpelstiltskin had restored her, just as he'd promised.
A gentle smile lifted her face, and after another pounding of the door, Belle remembered herself. It took her an agonizing amount of time to walk the halls of the castle, her body refusing to move faster than a stunted shuffle, and she took the stairs of the marble foyer even slower. By that time, she could tell the pounding was most vicious in its insistence and dearly hoped whoever was beyond the door was not angry.
In the back of her mind, Belle knew she had to be careful. If Rumpelstiltskin truly had gone away, he could not protect her. However, Belle also knew that his magic was ever present within the castle walls, and once, that had made her shiver with unease, but now only served to assure her that she had nothing to fear.
With a deep breath, Belle stepped up, lifted the latch and pulled one of the two doors open.
The face that met her was more of a surprise for being one she knew, and had known, nearly all her life. When Belle found her voice, it was a breathy gasp, "Judge Frollo?"
Her former tutor and the head of Avonlea's clerical order was garishly tall and ghastly thin, cloaked in black velvet robes with the stiff, starched white collar of the faith. His face was papery white and narrow, his long nose and hollowed eyes nearly gaunt, and had Belle not known him, she would have been concerned. But he had always looked that way, bony and looming as he was, shadowing Belle like some sort of black tower. His fist was upheld in the air, having been about to knock upon the door again, and when his eyes first laid upon Belle, he blanched, clearly expecting someone or something else.
"Lady Belle?" he asked, his deep, rumbling voice making her heart tighten in memories. His eyes took her in, and Belle could only imagine what he saw, how unkempt and unwell she must look.
Belle pushed tresses of hair behind her ears hastily, ducking her head as she stepped back to allow his entrance. Her words came out in a rush, flustered and disturbed by the onslaught of memories of reciting titles and studying tomes and memorizing rules. All in one disapproving, heated look, she was a child again.
"Won't you come in?" Belle asked, wishing she could clothe herself as easily as Rumpelstiltskin. The looks her old tutor gave her had always made her feel uncomfortably seen, and even as old as she was now, that didn't change when he looked at her. He stepped inside, and Belle noticed him draw the religious pantomime over his chest-a claw like gesture that pulled from the heart and pushed out, warding off evil. She ignored that, her mouth filling with distaste, and quickly shut the door.
"Please, follow me," Belle whispered, escorting him up the marble steps into the warm, great hall. Her mind was alive with discomfort and suspicion, but in all things she knew that as a maid, she represented Rumpelstiltskin, even while he was away. As undignified as she felt with rumpled clothes and unruly curls, Belle held herself as stately as she could manage and turned towards her old teacher with a kind smile, folding her hands primly before her. "Can I get you some tea? You must be cold, and worn from travel."
Frollo balked at the suggestion, and Belle's confidence withered a little. He seemed so perturbed by her, by his surroundings. Belle wished she could know exactly what he saw when he looked at her; it was so hard to fight against temptation and not peek beneath the tapestry that cloaked the looking glass, but she dare not. Steeling herself for any possibility, Belle set her chin squarely and asked, "Are you here to see Rumpelstiltskin, Judge Frollo?"
"...yes-and no," Frollo hesitated, his long, gnarled fingers curling along the red sash of his dark robes. He let his eyes fall to Belle's hands before glancing about, his eyes catching on the treasures Rumpelstiltskin had displayed so proudly. "I've come to facilitate the resolution of your deal."
Belle blinked dumbly, her own hands falling from each other to hang limply at her sides. With slow care, she lowered herself into Rumpelstiltskin's chair before the fire. Her heart felt like a stone within her chest, the words echoing in her ears but holding no source of value that she could pinpoint. Before she could pose to question his meaning, the holy man clasped his hands behind his back and walked up to stand before the fire. Belle noticed the flames reaching, climbing, dancing more enthusiastically at his approach, glancing between him and the embers. A trick of her eyes, she decided.
"Your chivalrous act has not been forgotten, but it has had unfortunate repercussions that must be dealt with," Judge Frollo intoned, his dark, shadowed eyes falling upon Belle's youthful face. His gaze was so hard, so unforgiving and cold that it took all her courage to not shrink from him when he looked at her like that, a sweeping glance that took in every imperfection and blemish. "Swiftly and sufficiently."
"Repercussions?" Belle whispered, wincing at the word.
"Your association with your master has tainted your reputation, as well as the house of your father. It's cast a darkness over the people you should be responsible for," the holy man spoke slowly, his eyes unblinking as he gazed upon her as if teaching her the histories and provinces of old, just as he used to. Belle felt her skin begin to prick as his voice crept up her back and over her shoulders like some sort of living thing. "The shame of a disgraceful daughter is a curse in itself, an impurity that must be atoned."
Belle wrinkled her nose in confusion, shaking her head gently. She sat forward at the edge of Rumpelstiltskin's chair, her hands gripping the armrests. "I don't understand, I haven't done anything wrong," she said slowly, replaying the last few fragmented months of her life. A whirlwind of magic and confusion, of mystery and discovery, meeting kings and gods and witches and finding a man beneath the beast who'd dealt for her, but surely that, in itself, could not be construed as evil?
No, it couldn't be! It was... it was beautiful, the uncertain blinking in the bright sunshine and the gentle touches that brought them closer, hesitant words tumbling from bashful lips over porcelain and tea. They'd found warmth and honesty, and Belle hadn't ever felt it so purely upon her heart. She had never wanted-no, needed to protect something so adamantly before, not in all her life. She was sure Rumpelstiltskin would sneer at her for wanting to protect him, to protect their stammering, whispering talks, the hushed laughter drawing constellations by starlight, the delicate cradle of his arms when he'd danced her in a dream, the warmth of his hands and words, She is mine. He had pushed her away so fiercely with his cruelty, but those revelations, those little moments that caused his scales to fall away and leave nothing but the tenderness of a broken man with a spot of kindness in his heart-those were the things she wished to protect.
They were hers, theirs, and she loved them and him. The thought startled her out of her quiet consideration, but the gravity of it settled her heart because it was true.
Belle loved Rumpelstiltskin.
The thought that it could be wrong, that the way her heart hurt from feeling so much could be shameful brought tears to her eyes. It couldn't be wrong-no love could be wrong, not this, never this.
The judge stepped forward until he stood at the side of her armrest, his shadowed gaze closer to a withering glare. "Are you listening to me, Lady Belle?" he intoned, his fingers moving in the air along his sash like spider's legs.
Realizing tears trickled down her cheeks, Belle patted them away with her handkerchief of lace kept in her sleeve, sniffling softly, "Yes, of course," she whispered, her voice watery and weak, looking up at him shyly. "But please... tell me what I've done wrong, and surely I can make amends. Did my father send you?"
Judge Frollo's hand was clammy when he slipped his fingers over her wrist that rested on the chair, his words heavy and weighted as he met her eyes. "My dear girl, I fear there's no amend to be made so long as you're under the enchantment of the Dark One," at Belle's frown, the holy man's hand circled her wrist just too tight, mistaking her confusion for concern. "There is nothing to fear, my girl. We will purge you of this vice and sin of the monster."
Those words brought back such vivid memories of starched white pinafores and harsh sticks bloodying her palms in the face of misbehavior that Belle almost felt sick with nausea, but out of all he'd said, only one thing truly caught her off guard, so much so that she pushed herself up to her feet, tugging her wrist free of the judge's grasp. "Monster?" she admonished, her narrowed eyes flashing, taking a step nearer the fire.
"An unholy demon with a life to serve temptation," Frollo said slowly, his gaze following the way Belle moved, seeing everything and missing little. His lips quirked in something that might have been a smile. "He deserves naught but to be sent back from whence he came."
"His name is Rumpelstiltskin," Belle said confidently, though careful to use his name. Remembering how she had summoned him before, she did not dare call to him now if he was away. Her petite hands curling into fists at her sides, Belle set her chin defiantly, "And he is not a demon, he is cursed," shaking her head wearily, Belle looked down at her hands. Was being cursed not enough? The world's condemnation need served no other purpose but mindless cruelty, where kindness would surely heal. Of all in the world, was Belle the only one to think that? Perhaps, then, she was odd after all, perhaps there was something wrong with her. And yet... "You taught me that we should reach out to the hopeless," she said slowly, her eyes drifting up to the judge's austere face. "To love the down trodden and let our faith lead us. To turn away those who need us most, that's not what our faith teaches. That's not right."
The judge's eyes were colder than ice on her skin, and his lip curled. "How dare you."
"My conscience would not be clear knowing I looked beyond the valed mockery of even the most despicable of people. Hate won't heal what is already hateful," Belle whispered, and realized she was pleading with him to understand her. Stepping closer, Belle took his hand in both of hers, smiling softly. "Surely goodness and mercy are the right paths to take in the darkness. He's not a monster," shaking her head, she whispered, "He's kind."
For a long moment, the judge was quiet, his lofty gaze holding Belle to her spot in trembling anxiety. His other hand came up and touched her arm, and she relaxed at the gentle gesture, even if it made her want to squirm. Understanding lit his cold eyes, and Belle felt as if he finally heard her when he leaned forward, and quietly whispered, "What a horrid existence you must lead here," he grasped her arms too tightly then, but his words caused her pained gasp when he asked, "If a sinner's compromise is the only consolation to being a monster's whore."
The words struck her in the chest sharper than any blade, and Belle pushed away with a fierce defiance she hadn't felt before, stumbling back. Her hand grasped the mantle of the fireplace, her face pinched in stunned hurt, and her voice was a mere whimper of protest, "I- I'm not, I have never-"
"You need not explain yourself to me, my dear. The Almighty is the one you must concern yourself with now," Frollo said briskly, his hands smoothing down the front of his sash, his eyes taking in Belle's fidgeting, drifting up to her face. The look, his way of seeing her that had followed her as a child and a young girl that made her skin prickle and her stomach curdle uncomfortably returned in a rush, and he reached a hand out to touch her face. "Wickedness may have spoiled you, but we might find you some...atonement," the lecherously relish he spoke the words with brought a burning blush to Belle's face, hearing what he had not said, and she slapped his hand away, glaring fiercely. Her heart hurt that he would think such of her, but her wounded pride provoked anger rather than melancholy, and she felt it fresh in her mind.
"The only monster I see is you," Belle hissed, taking a step backward until her shoulders brushed the polished wood of the mantle. She spoke with more confidence than she felt, but this was her home. She had the authority here. "And now you must leave, while I still have enough mercy to not give the Dark One your name and crime for insulting me."
"You would give yourself to that beast, yet reject a man of piety and good grace?" Frollo's lip curled back from his teeth, and Belle felt her knees knock together. Everything seemed to happen at once. The man was tall and thin and older than Belle knew, but he was deadly quick and sharp like a snake, twirling Belle by her arm until her back was flush with his chest, and he had her arms pinned to her sides. His face was pressed into her hair and neck, his voice smoke burnished and low as he muttered into her ear, "We'll cleanse you, my dear, and you will answer for these sins."
His voice turned her bones hollow, and it was hardly an effort for him to shove her down, forward to the floor. Belle hardly had time enough to catch herself on her hands, feeling her wrists tingle from the impact, her knees bashing against the stone, but a gnarled hand tangled in her hair, pulling painfully tight until a cry ripped from her throat. Too weak from still trying to heal, Belle couldn't find the physical strength to fight back as she found herself being shoved towards the fire and wriggled as hard and insistently as she could, whimpering as the heat licked at her skin. Behind and above her, she could hear the holy man chanting, calling out some string of prayer that she couldn't decipher over the rush of blood in her ears.
When her blameless skin met the searing coals of the fire, the most unholy scream ripped from Belle's throat, and she thrashed under the tight grip of her hair. She was mindless to anything beyond the pain, the feeling of melting flesh and the revolting smell of burning hair, and instinct took over in blindness as she grabbed the charred coals and threw them back. She heard the satisfying hiss as the judge howled when the fiery stones took to his own face, and Belle was able to throw herself away from the fire, grappling across the carpeted hall. She could feel and taste blood on her face, and found she was unable to open her right eye. A stunted whimper bubbled from her lips as she made it clumsily to her feet but pitched into a painful cry when she felt a bony hand grasp the back of her neck and pull her backward.
The hand drew her back so she met his chest, but in that moment all the candles flickered and hissed out, leaving the room in near darkness save for the firelight. The judge stiffened behind her and his hand twisted the back of her blouse, pressing his face near her ear, "What did you do?"
"I h-haven't done an-anything-" Belle whimpered, attempting to speak without crying. She could feel the flesh along the side of her face crack and bleed, her eye swollen shut and making the room even more confusing in the shadows.
"Ah," Frollo's voice was deep in his delight as he hugged her back against him, turning so his back was to the fire and he could see the width of the great hall. "Your master has returned, then. Why not be the dutiful maid and summon him, my dear?"
Belle felt tears create stinging trails down her cheeks, but she bit her lip against the trembling. She would not give him obedience, and if it was Rumpelstiltskin, she would wish to warn him of the danger, not draw him straight into it. Certainly he was more powerful than a cleric, but taken unawares, anyone could be susceptible to danger. At her silence, the judge muttered, "Stubborn chit, as always," and pulled her harshly up by her hair.
Belle cried out, but was cut short when Frollo turned sharply, keeping her tucked in front of him more like a shield than a hostage. His voice was steel, but underneath the growl she could hear something weak and wiley catch on his words when he asked, "What was that?"
Something moved out of the corner of her eye, a shifting presence in the dark that was too fast for Belle to see. She couldn't hear anything over the wild beating of her heart, but everything had grown incredibly quiet. Even the fire had frozen it in its merrily popping dance, and their breathing was the only sound she could make out. "I will smite thee, demon," Frollo rumbled from over Belle's shoulder, his voice wavering in the darkness. "And see you burn with your mistress for your corruption."
All at once everything seemed to go still, before a second voice whispered over Belle's other shoulder, "There's not enough fire in all the world for that, dearie."
The judge lashed out with his arm and a blade that Belle had not seen him with before. When he did, his grip on her had loosened enough that she was able to wrestle herself free. She fell, unceremoniously to the floor in a heap, catching herself with both hands. Blinking painfully in the firelight against her eye that was swollen shut, Belle could see the blurry vision of two leather boots standing right in front of her, hardly a breath's width away, and her entire body started to tremble, a smile tinged in hysteria and relief playing at her lips. She leaned forward and pressed her forehead to the cool leather and laces, and felt the invisible arms of magic slip around her. They touched her face, kissed away the mottled flesh and scars until her skin was soft and perfect once more, and she shuddered in pleasure when a black nailed hand slipped into her hair, petting and comforting, soothing away the ache and hurt.
Hearing leather move, Belle opened her eyes in time for Rumpelstiltskin to crouch beside her with a warm smile. His other hand cupped her face where she'd once been burned, his thumb tracing her cheek. "I can hardly turn my back for a moment without the whole world coming to steal you from me, little dove, even to just fetch you medicine," he murmured, his voice deeper than she'd heard it before. "What are we to do with such villains who insist on taking you from me?"
Belle closed her eyes and leaned her face into his hand, too tired, too dizzy to think of the words or their meaning. She had no answer for him, none that would both satisfy and be brief. Instead, she reached forward with both arms and pulled herself to him, never minding his instantaneous tension. She felt his arms, heavily cloaked in his scaled coat, come around her, his hands warm on her back and his face pressing into her hair, where her neck and shoulder met. She smiled, revelling in his closeness and warmth and the knowledge that she was safe, so much so that she was unaware of the movement behind her, or of the black and hunted gaze Rumpelstiltskin took when his head snapped up dangerously.
All at once, he was on his feet again, spinning Belle on weak legs so that she was tucked behind him, both his arms like a curved cage as he stood between her and Judge Frollo, his voice nearly inhuman in its seething spite, teeth bared and lips curled back in a snarl.
Belle wondered for a flickering moment why he didn't just kill the man; not that she wished he would do so, of course, but had it been anyone else she was sure he would have turned him into a snail. It only occurred to Belle then, pulling herself up against the table on wobbly legs, as Rumpelstiltskin stepped between her and the judge, that he had feared, perhaps, for her. Was that it? Had he been too anxious that she might be hurt by accident?
Watching his back, the inky scaled dragonhide of his coat shining against the firelight, Belle felt an irrational surge of adrenaline, enough to clear her mind when Judge Frollo held a blade out, a sharp, pointed dagger, but his smile was the more chilling of the two double edges. "I'll have her, Spinner. I'll have her if I have to burn down all of the enchanted forest," his eyes gleamed then, hungrily, "Do you know how we cleanse the soul, demon?" At Rumpelstiltskin's answering hiss, his hand clutching Belle's leg to ensure she remain behind him, the holy man leered forward, raising his blade wielding arm towards the hearth, "With scourges and flame."
As if the word were a summons, a burst of heat from the fireplace came forth like a living, breathing being, and suddenly Belle was being pinned back against the table, blanketed with Rumpelstiltskin covering her against the dancing flames. When the blast of fire died, so strong that it had blown the tapestry from the mirror across the room, Rumpelstiltskin straightened, his face cold and brittle as he looked down at her, and seeing her unharmed, spun on his heel to the holy man who stared in horror. Belle saw licks of dying embers tinging the scales of his coat, and realized why he wore the dragonhide. It was as much theatricality as it was protection.
Fire couldn't kill dragons.
"Really, dearie?" Rumpelstiltskin giggled, and it was so detached, so completely hollow that Belle felt her stomach tighten. "You try to defeat me, a demon, with his own element?" With inhuman speed, Rumpelstiltskin stood before the holy man, holding him by his throat, his nails biting into the aging white flesh. His teeth clenched, he growled up at the frightened old cleric, "Try again."
The magician simply waved his arm, but the magic in the motion sent the old man flying across the wall, slamming into the double oak doors so hard that they broke beneath his weight. Rumpelstiltskin strode across the room with purpose, his coattails lapping at the back of his leather boots. Belle leaned against the table, watching in uncertainty, her arms shaking under her weight before she was able to move, following after the Dark One who prowled like a spider chasing after it's wriggling meal caught in its net.
It seemed Belle had been the honey to catch with, yet again, as she looked past the broken wood out into the marble foyer where the castle doors stood open from where its master had entered, the vase of roses in the foyer smashed and trodden. The judge was on his back, whimpering, heels and hands scrabbling against the thick carpet of the great hall as he attempted to pull himself up to run from the Dark One as he approached with black hunger in his eyes. Hands tightening to fists at his sides, Belle knew that she was about to witness an artist painting with red if she didn't do something.
"Wait!" she pleaded, hurrying to round the table as quickly as she could manage on weak legs. When he didn't seem to hear her, Belle begged him, "Rumpelstiltskin, wait!" Intercepting the Dark One took gumption enough; to do so while he looked ready to eat the heart of someone who'd crossed him took every ounce of bravery Belle had, and put both hands to his chest, holding him away, "You can't do this- you can't, please."
"Get out of my way," Rumpelstiltskin snarled, low, slowly, grinding out the words between his teeth.
Her hands caught either side of his face, and for a moment his eyes were so large, so filled with darkness that Belle thought he might strike her and not even know her. But when she pulled his face to hers, she saw the darkness recede, the lines around his mouth and eyes soften in wonder at their closeness. "Please," Belle whispered again, her fingers quivering over his pebbled gold green skin as she cradled his face close. "Not likes this. You're not a monster, Rumpelstiltskin," her fingers curled into his hair where it brushed her hands. It must have been a story somewhere, once, the maiden who sought to protect the beast from himself. "I know you're not. Please, let him pay for his crimes through justice, but not like this. Have mercy."
Rumpelstiltskin stared at her incredulously, his brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed as if he couldn't figure out what his little maid was. His hands rested on her arms, his whisper breathless against her face, "He hurt you."
"And if you hurt him, I'll lose you," Belle murmured, blinking away the tears that clogged her throat and pooled in her eyes. "Rumpelstiltskin, I cannot lose you," with a stammer that was more whimper than words, Belle leaned into him, "I- I love you."
Rumpelstiltskin startled under her touch like a frightened deer, his eyes widening and his lips trembling. He searched her face desperately, and she could see in his gaze how ardently he wished to run from her, such a small, fearful man hiding behind the cloak of power. Instead, his hands fell from her arms, defeated, and he whispered thinly, as if he were a lost child in the darkness and didn't know his way, "Belle?"
Smiling, Belle traced her thumbs over the gentle slope of his cheeks, leaning up on her tiptoes and closing her eyes. So close, she could feel the warmth from his breath, the flutter of his eye lashes on her cheeks just as her lips began to brush his, and she wanted nothing more than to kiss him, to brush away the darkness with all the brightness that she felt in her heart.
The sudden pain of nails scraping her scalp and ripping her hair yanked her from that place of safety, and Belle tumbled back. Frollo's hand was like a claw as he took a resolute hold on her, but Rumpelstiltskin proved faster than the two. He lunged forward and caught Belle up, pushing his hands past her with a surge of magic, knocking the holy man off balance and away from her. None of them, not even Rumpelstiltskin, realized they wrestled so close before the mirror, and in his flailing for solid ground the holy man fell back through the looking glass, his guttural scream swallowed within another time and world.
The force knocked Belle back into Rumpelstiltskin's chest, and he landed bluntly on his rear before the table. Both of them stared, wide eyed and wondering at the innocent mirror where once a tall, dark tower of a man had stood. She felt Rumpelstiltskin's arms come around her, his hands flat on her back and pulling her close, their breaths hushed and gusting as she curled against him there in the floor, both too scared to move for fear of what else might break if they did.
Belle felt his touch at the back of her head, a cool tingling beneath her hair where the holy man had left his marks on her skin, and she shivered under the magic. She would have to thank him for that, for how he healed her and cared for her when she could find the words, even if she never wanted magic done to her again. Too unsure in herself or him to lift her face, Belle pressed her cheek to the soft brocade of his waistcoat, whispering, "Is he... gone?"
"Yes," Rumpelstiltskin's chest hummed in his quiet assent, resting his back against the leg of the table as they huddled in the floor together, the little man of magic and the bright pretty thing. "...but not dead. Away, off in another time. In another world."
"Oh," it was barely a breath, but she felt him nod above her. She warmed as his hand smoothed her hair tenderly, and even more so when she felt his lips press into her hair near the crown of her head. "You saved me," she said softly, not a question but an olive branch, daring the quiet.
Belle felt him hesitate, his fingers drumming lightly along her spine. "Yes," he paused, before holding her closer, whispering in her hair, "But despite what you might think, Belle, I am still a monster."
And then, Belle did raise her face to his, touching his cheek. "A mystery to be uncovered, or a riddle to guess, perhaps, but what makes a monster and what makes a man, Rumpelstiltskin?" Belle whispered, leaning just enough to brush her nose to his sweetly, smiling tenderly at his bewitched look. Tracing her finger along his lips, Belle shook her head and sighed, "You can have happiness, you know. You're more man than monster, even more than you realize."
"For you, I hope that could be. That it could be enough," Rumpelstiltskin said softly, his eyes filled with longing.
"It is," Belle laughed, brokenly but ringing enough to rouse a smile from her True Love, small and honest. She sighed as he pulled her closer, murmuring once more into their gentle kiss, "Oh, it is."
A/N: Thank you again. Reviews are always appreciated.