So I'm madly in love with this series now. All the character dynamics are so wonderful, and my favorite is the relationship between Rumpelstiltskin and Belle. Then this happened. Enjoy.

Do The Brave Thing
(Or, How To Care For Your Cat)

For the first few weeks, he acts like she's not even there. He spends his time alternating between spinning straw into gold and concocting mysterious potions. She makes the meals and they sit at the table together and eat, but neither of them say anything.

So she spends her time cleaning. It's a bit refreshing, actually. Back home, she was almost never allowed to do things for herself. She was a princess, and a lady of her status has servants and maids to do everything. The pampering had always driven her crazy, just another sign of how she wasn't allowed to make her own decisions or create her own future. Though she has simply moved from one prison to another, at least she feels productive here. Besides, the cleaning doubles as an opportunity to explore – and there is so much to investigate. There are many rooms that obviously haven't been used in years, and many that seem to have been completely forgotten. She marks those rooms in her memory, to come back to later if she runs out of things to do.

She does miss home. She misses her father, who is a good man, if bull-headed. She misses her maidservants, with whom she enjoyed gossiping and learning about all the goings-on of the castle. She even misses Gaston a bit, who means well even if he is a bit thick. Her only contact is Rumpelstiltskin, and he isn't much company. For all she felt trapped back home, at least she hadn't been this lonely. It hurts, but she doesn't cry, because she's stronger than that.

The day she discovers the library is like the first gasp of air after being underwater too long. It's huge. She's never seen so many books in her life. She nearly cries then, because it's the most beautiful thing she's ever laid eyes on. Running to the nearest bookshelf, she grabs the first book she reaches, and goes to curl up in a nearby alcove. She pushes the drapes open, settles down on the old but comfortable cushions, and reads by the sunlight.

It's not long after that she begins to see more of her captor. He'll pause at his wheel to watch her as she dusts the cabinets, returning to his work as if he hadn't been looking when she glances his way. Sometimes he'll drop by the library and watch her read, head cocked to the side, and then pretend to be searching for a book when she looks up. He makes her think of a cat in many ways – his light footsteps, the way he stalks the stone corridors, his intent and eerie gaze, but most of all in his habit of acting like he hadn't been caught looking. It's almost funny, how he reminds her more of a cat than a man.

She's on her sixth book so far, nestled in her favorite alcove, when she feels his eyes on her. She looks up and is surprised when he doesn't look away. Instead, he paces across the room to stand over her, and she scoots over a bit and pats the cushions next to her. He sits, and watches her. She waits for him to say something, but when nothing is forthcoming she continues to read, trying to ignore the prickling sensation of his gaze on her. Finally, unable to stand it anymore, she marks her place and snaps the book shut. "Is there something I can help you with?" she asks, trying to keep the irritation out of her tone. Judging by his arched eyebrow, she doesn't quite succeed.

He answers her question with another. "Aren't you afraid of me?"

She blinks, taken aback. She supposes she should be afraid of him. There aren't many who haven't heard the tales of the Dark One, whether as stories told to children who misbehave or yarns shared over mugs of beer in taverns. (She'd learned them as the former.) She had been afraid, at first, when he had said the price for peace was her service. But she knew that bravery was doing the right thing despite your fears, and so she had pushed those fears aside.

And yet, he hasn't done anything to her, and thinking of him as a cat certainly hasn't helped him seem more formidable. She wonders now how far that metaphor extends.

"I'm not sure," she says slowly. "You haven't done anything particularly fearsome of late."

He tilts his head, a quirk she's become familiar with over the past weeks. His eyes are a murky brown and they catch the light in odd, inhuman ways. "Haven't I?" That strange giggle bubbles from his throat, and she remembers the twist of fear she'd felt when she'd first heard it. She doesn't feel it now.

"No," she replies, feeling a bit more certain.

"Interesting," he says, his grin stretching wide. He stands, and leaves.

Belle watches him go. It was probably the most they'd said to each other since she'd arrived.

She begins to bump into him at the oddest intervals, rounding a corner to find him standing directly in her path or searching for a book in the library only to turn around and come face-to-face with him. He takes to sneaking up behind her and whispering "Hello, dearie" in her ear.

She suspects he is trying to scare her. He's certainly been startling her, but she's not so sure about scaring. She thinks it's safe to say that since this new behavior had begun after their conversation, he is trying to prove something.

Somehow, that makes him even less frightening.

Things proceed like this for a week, and she is just about ready to kill him. It all comes to a head when, while she is dusting a display case, he suddenly murmurs in her ear, "Afternoon, dearie."

She whips around, lashing out with the feather duster. It's not really a blow, more a puff of soft feathers to the face.

He stumbles back, his expression the perfect picture of shock.

Oh, she thinks, I've done it now. She stares at him, waiting for him to turn her into a toad or something. They lock gazes for what seems like an eternity, then, unexpectedly, his face cracks into the biggest grin she's seen from him yet and he is overcome by a fit of giggles. "My, my, my," he says once he's regained control, wiping an imaginary tear from the corner of his eye. "Aren't we feisty."

She decides she isn't going to apologize, and apparently it shows on her face, because he doesn't ask for one. Instead, he turns and swaggers off down the hall, chuckling to himself.

He doesn't stop sneaking up on her, but he does avoid doing it when she is holding something that could conceivably be used against him. (He replaces it with creeping up on her when she's more likely to drop something.)

They start talking more at meals. He doesn't have much to say, but he'll listen as she talks about whatever book she's currently reading. She has a suspicion that he's read every book in the library, but he's still attentive as she describes it. He acts like he isn't, but somehow she can tell.

It's another cat-like thing about him.

It's not so bad, she decides, living here.

But she can't help wondering when "admiring the view" stopped being the sweeping mountains beyond the window and became Rumpelstiltskin at the wheel or the alchemy set.

(Especially when he wears those tight leather pants.)

The longer she stays, the more she realizes how lonely he must have been, and she begins to understand why he'd bargained for her. She doesn't appreciate being bartered, but she understands. With his reputation, company must be hard to come by. She supposes that no matter who or what you are, you still need companionship.

And the longer she stays, the more he seems to soften to her, and the days are sunny. She knows there is something awful in him, she can see it in the back of his eyes, and she wishes more than anything that she could soothe it. There is a good man in there, she can see that in his eyes too, and she hopes that maybe she could make that man hers.

It all goes horribly wrong eventually, and she wonders why she hadn't seen it coming. She'd hoped that she could help him – not change him, just help. But you can't help someone who doesn't want to be helped.

That's why, when he asks her to leave, she does.

The world is different now, so different that it's dizzying. There's so much to learn, but she's never been one to back down from a challenge. She wants Rumpel to be there alongside her, and he seems to want to be there too, but some things don't change. He might be human now, and he might have to lean on a cane to walk, but he still clings to his magic and his half-truths, and she realizes she has finally found the challenge she doesn't want to tackle.

So she asks him to leave, and he does. But then he comes back, and he is honest with her, and he doesn't expect anything in exchange.

When he is done, he begins to walk away, his gait limping instead of the almost-strut she had gotten so used to. She knows that if he walks out the door, he'll never bother her again.

As the meaning behind his words sinks in, and as she tries to sort out all her tangled feelings, she realizes that she can help him.

Because, finally, he wants to be helped.