Whew, I FINALLY got this chapter done. And now it looks like there will be two, possible three chapters after this. Depends on how long it takes the rest of the plot to play out. What, there's a plot? Why yes, dearies, there is. And it's approaching its climax pretty soon (and that might or might not be a double endendre ;D). Thanks for the suggestions in your reviews, btw! I will probably do smutty companion pieces once this crazy darling is completed.


Belle's dream advanced from kisses and caresses to things her imagination cobbled from the manuals and romances she'd read, and from what her body began to understand of its desires. Disappointment, though not surprise, met her when she awoke alone in the prison cell. She could smell his leather and musk, which was at least something. It kept the lingering fire from her dream kindled.

She wondered with greater seriousness about what she'd told him yesterday. Being trapped in the same clothes, exercising the little exertion it took to carry handfuls of hay to Rumplestiltskin, and being aroused to varying levels over the weeks had built up a heavy odor inside her blouse, and likely other places, that discouraged the idea of going through with lying with him now. Yet her body was impatient and curious. She remembered his hands, his mouth, the shape of his figure against her. Tingles and soft aches skittered across her flesh like fireflies that lit up and heated her in fleeting flickers. Unable to restrain the needs of her mind or body, her hands explored. One started at her throat while the other traced two fingers over her lips, her cheek, her ear. She remembered how he bit her ear several days ago and the startling effect. Could she do the same to him? Why not? As both her hands wandered over her breasts, teasing the skin above the corset, then further down to her stomach and hips, her mind simulated how it would feel to be touched by him unclothed. How would it feel to touch him all over, like she tried that same night when he nipped her ear? She had had a vague idea of what was expected, what would give him pleasure. Could she do it better? Make him too overwhelmed to resist? The idea of provoking the Dark One, the feared deal-maker, to moan and writhe helplessly under her brought a swell of heat to her sex. Neither it nor her hands could wait any longer.

A flutter of fear that she might be seen by a passing guard quickly dissipated. She was too wound up and tired to care. She did remain mindful of any sounds she made. Her hands hiked up her skirts. The right one navigated through layers of cloth to its destination. There was some moisture already, though most of it might have been sweat. Some explorations of her womanhood had occurred during the potent budding years of her adolescence, but had since been put aside as unimportant in light of the larger crises crowding into her life. There had been some shame attached to it, too. She had once spotted a stable boy hiding in a corner stall with himself in hand. His face, already flushed, deepened as he shoved his member back into his trousers and pleaded her pardon. Belle had been confused and apologetic, even as her innocent and snobbish self felt disgust at the lad's need. Later she confided in her most trustworthy maid, who explained that "men are simply like that sometimes"; it wasn't proper, but men were not expected to be as disciplined about that part of their nature as women. Many people held the belief that women did not feel as strongly as men in that way.

What idiots. Belle realized that now, and it washed away any shame she might have felt as she lay, cushioned by straw, in a foreign dungeon with a hand in her bloomers. Maybe she felt less confident about her feelings, but they could not possibly be weaker than a man's.

Her fingers gently prodded the hidden terrain. Her mind returned to her dreams, which she could expand on thanks to her very wakeful state. More questions whispered through her imagination for answers. What would it feel like, his naked skin against hers? Would she want him on top? Could they do it side-by-side instead, or even with her above? She remembered his scent and debated whether it indicated how he tasted. He had those scales. Maybe it would be like a fish, which she didn't altogether mind. He didn't smell fishy, though. He might taste like the ocean, briny and brisk. Or maybe he really was more like a lizard, the sort found in deserts, roughened by sand and sun. Would he have the flavor of a dry, barren valley? Would licking his neck or chest dry up her tongue, make her thirsty for more?

Instinct instructed Belle to focus her fingers on the hidden bud of her sex. It started to pulse while juices gushed and whimpers and sighs broke from her lips. She could feel her cheeks burning without touching them. Amazing how one small part of her body could throw the rest of it into a frenzy. But practicality broke through her excitement. What about that most concealed yet emphasized part? The one that would give Rumplestiltskin the greatest pleasure (she presumed) and fulfill her condition of their deal? One finger ventured down. She was a little perplexed to find that for all its fame, it did not feel as sensitive to contact. Perhaps her finger was too slender to excite the right spots. She tried adding a second, and instantly panicked. Her flesh in that area strained from the wider girth. Was it possible to rupture one's hymen by accident? She returned to just the one finger and resumed her investigation. Relaxing helped a little. It wasn't very unpleasant. Imagining Rumple in her this way send a frightened spark that preceded a buzz of warmth. It could be nice, satisfying even, feeling him there. But it couldn't compare with the pleasure she was giving herself earlier. Somewhat confounded, Belle brought her hand back up to where it was before.

The pleasure grew to a certain point, and her mind ravished its library of fantasies to bring it higher. After what felt like an hour, however, her peak refused to arrive. Her fingers were getting cramped, so despite her hunger she let herself rest. The smell of her essence reached her when her hand came free. She wrinkled her nose. Gods, a wash was really needed now. Her face continued to blush as she wiped her fingers with the inside of her underskirts as best she could. The smell was stubbornly strong, so she tried the straw. Its stale fragrance helped a touch.

The "breakfast" tray dropped through the slot a little while later. Belle was glad for the activity of fetching it. This prolonged confinement was inhibiting her limbs with the absence of exercise. She brought the tray with her to the middle of the far wall, set it in her lap and started breaking off pieces of bread. Familiar squeaks alerted her to guests. A few mice poked their heads out from little holes in the wall and the corners. Some had become bolder in light of her sharing food and her kind demeanor. Belle tore off a chunk and divided it into minuscule portions that she then sprinkled near her friends. The mice, still cautious, as their nature demanded, grabbed and ran, though some were confident enough to squat in the open and eat with her. Belle smiled gratefully. It was nice to have even this humble company.

She looked down while picking up her soup. When her eyes turned up, Rumplestiltskin was standing before her, looking grave.

"Oh! Coming to join me for lunch?" This was a real surprise, though she tried to sound casual. He must not have been busy with his other work today.

"You insist on eating that vile stuff?" He pointed without mercy at the bread in her lap and the bowl in her hands.

Belle looked around the cell. "Did you leave me anything else to eat?"


"Well, then." She raised her bowl and her eyebrows to him and drank.

He let out a disgusted, and what she hoped was a defeated ugh and stepped toward her. His dragonhide coat gleamed in the sunlight. Belle wanted to disapprove, given her past associations with it, but she liked the cut of it on him. He was wearing his red vest and golden shirt underneath. No cravat. Rumplestiltskin adjusted a cuff. It gave Belle a few careless seconds to stare at his bare chest. She forced her gaze away well before he was done fiddling with his sleeve. Another hunger was already returning.

Gods, to paint that chest with her lips and tongue, and make it glitter even more . . .

She stuffed her mouth full of chalky bread.

"I should have gone the full nine yards and brought a picnic basket," he said in a dry tone.

She shook her head, unable to talk through the mouthful.

Rumplestiltskin shrugged. "No matter. It would have been too predictable. A picnic on a hill in the sunshine. Far too overdone."

Belle scowled and swallowed. "What are you talking about?"

"Hmm? About what?"

"What you just said."

"I said picnics were overdone."

With a roll of her eyes she brushed off the crumbs, set down the soup bowl and stood. "Are we really going to do this dance? I will spin circles around you, Rumplestiltskin."

"Ooh-hoo-hoo!" He widened his eyes and wiggled his fingers at her. "Do I hear a challenge, milady?"

It was. She couldn't stand the tension turning her inner springs tighter and tighter. The worst was that it wasn't anger. Frustration, yes, of many kinds. "Why are you here?" Belle arched one of her eyebrows. "Are you that bored at home, wherever it is?"

"My castle does get a bit dull." The imp's eyes gleamed at the word 'castle'. As if he needed to impress her.

She stepped closer, hands on her hips. "Oh, poor you. No deals for the deal-maker, either?"

"I can always find one, if my presence disturbs you." He frowned to threaten her with a premature departure.

For all her pride, Belle did not want to let him leave. But he had come to her. Without request. He wanted to be here. "It's your random comments that are disturbing. You bring up an outdoor picnic and then pretend to think I won't notice." Another step brought her nose within an inch of his chin. His tangy, dusky smell rolled off him. She wanted to inhale it. Her mouth, when not speaking, remained firmly closed. "If you want to ask me something, Rumple, please do."

"It's not a picnic, I can tell you that," he countered. A smirk emerged.

"I'm not going to guess. Either tell me or let me finish my meal in peace." Stupid man. Gods, she wanted to kiss him.

His tongue flicked out across his lips, and Belle almost lost her fortitude. It was, fortunately, unintentional. A nervous tick. Yet he held together his unruffled facade with a smile and some head tilting. "How about a deal?"

Belle sighed and turned away.

"Wait." His hand gently took possession of her wrist, spinning her back to him. Although she made her displeasure at his antics clear, she did not pull away. To her relief, his mask unraveled some. Softness touched his face before he let her wrist go. "Let me do what I came here to do, and afterwards you can tell me a story."

Belle knew what she wanted out of this deal. Surprisingly, it had nothing to do with the thickening need sprouting inside her. "No. We will do whatever it is you have in mind, and in return you tell me a story. About where you came from."

The playful confidence dropped completely. His eyes rounded, upset and vulnerable. "Belle - "

"Those are my terms."

Again she feared this might dissuade Rumplestiltskin from staying. She let her own expression soften to show that this would mean a lot to her. As much as she desired him - more than she could have imagined possible when they met - there was something more important at stake. He was still in many respects a stranger. She had been patient, understanding, respectful of his privacy. Could he not see in her eyes that her restraint was not due to lack of interest? She understood the value she was demanding. That much he could see, or so she hoped.

His expression settled into grim resignation. "Deal." He held out his hand.

Belle rewarded herself with a deep breath, dragging in his scent with it. A small smile stretched on her lips. She grasped his hand, preparing to shake.

Purple mist covered them. She felt she was suddenly being spun at an impossible speed. Her stomach jumped. She squeezed back an urge to gag as the smoke disappeared and the spinning stopped. Her hand was still holding Rumple's for dear life. When her insides returned to their proper places and she could breath without coughing, Belle began to register her surroundings.

They were outside. Where it wasn't clear. High in a mountain range with the sun heating them from above and a crisp wind playing with their hair and any loose fabric. There were standing on a mossy patch on an otherwise barren landscape comprised of sloping rocks flanking their little plateau. The thin air brought Belle close to fainting. She actually stumbled, and Rumple's hand dropped hers so he could catch her waist. "All right, dear?"

"Sorry," she mumbled, swallowing what air she could. She couldn't make much of Rumplestiltskin holding her, for the wind cut through her clothes and she pressed against him for warmth. "W-what are we doing here?"

That awkwardness she'd come to know and cherish in the imp invaded his voice. He sounded embarrassed. "You said you wanted a wash."

She squeezed her eyes closed and leaned into him, wanting to laugh but afraid of draining herself of oxygen. This had to make sense somehow. He'd show her, so she only looked up with a tired, disbelieving smile and asked, "How?"

Rumplestiltskin smiled back. "Hold on to me."

No need to tell her twice. Against expectations, he didn't use magic again. One arm remained locked around her waist while he escorted her up a naturally made stairway on the cliff. No sooner did they reach the narrow ridge at the top that he turned her round and led her down another set of stairs. She cast her eyes over the horizon, which looked like a row of shark's teeth against a canvas smudged with soft blue. It was quite beautiful. There was no sign of Dathomir's castle or lands.

"Where are we?" she asked as they neared the bottom of the stairs, which led to a ledge and a short drop to another plateau that, amazingly, stood home to a large spring, practically a pond, that gave off steam in defiance of the mountain climate. More moss grew around its rocky shore.

"Let's just say we're in my neck of the woods." Rumple's hand swept over the scene before them. "Figuratively speaking."

The thought of Rumplestiltskin living in a mountainous region made sense without requiring much thought. Mountains were a natural barrier, and he was someone who wanted to dwell in isolation and obscurity to keep the myths of him alive.

"Where's your castle, then?" she teased.

"That's my secret for now, my dear."

Belle smiled. She couldn't recall when he stopped calling her dearie. It sounded like a term he used frequently. 'Dear' and 'my dear', though said without special emphasis, rolled off his tongue with less certainty and more gentleness. Her insides warmed. Desire had subsided somewhat, letting more tender emotions anchor in. Carefully she slipped out of his arms, her footing and breathing more sure, so she could have a closer look at the spring. She'd only heard of them, the Southland springs. That had to be where they were. Many of these mountains were dormant volcanoes. The magma that crept up toward the land's surface heated the underground streams that fed these pools. In older times people would make retreats here to relax and give thankful worship to the gods. For some reason, maybe because of the Dark One or other menacing forces, very few ventured here anymore. The clerics decried public baths as morally reprehensible, the wild springs included.

Had there been many people sharing the space, Belle might have felt too self-conscious to strip in the open to take a dip. But it was only she and Rumplestiltskin. Ideas bubbled in her brain. Her heartbeat quickened.

She turned to her companion. He remained several steps away, hands folded in front of him. Expression hopeful. Eyes watching.

"An improvement over Dathomir's servants scrubbing me like a cauldron, I must say," she said.

He smiled, proud. "I thought you'd like it."

Her pulse still racing, Belle sat on the pool's edge and sloughed her shoes and stockings. When bared, her feet reached into the water. Heat shot up her skin and muscles. She moaned with relief. "Do you come here often?" she called back to Rumple.

"Now and then. My tub at home does the same when I want it to." His voice sounded no closer.

She had her back to him as she unlaced her bodice and pulled it and the blouse off at the same time. She then brought up her feet so she could stand and yank down her skirts. Her bloomers came off, too. Once she was down to her corset and chemise, Belle pulled up the chemise as far as her thighs and lowered herself back into the water. Her feet planted their soles on the pebbled bottom. A moment was spent wondering if she ought to wet her clothes and ask Rumple to dry them later. But clothes would make washing all the necessary areas more difficult. She was reserving her modesty because the imp was here. But the whole point of this bath . . .

Courage seized her. Belle held up the chemise with one hand while unlacing the corset, thankfully also laced up front. Her mind blocked out Rumplestiltskin - blocked out anyone who would have scolded her for this - as her corset was flung to the bank, and the chemise right behind.

Free of her garments, she ducked into the water. It could be dangerous, she'd heard, to submerge in hot water when one wasn't used to it. It did become oppressive after several seconds, which sent her back to the surface. But gods, it was wonderful! A cleansing fire rushed through her, and now the cold air was a refreshing splash. Two extremes that could otherwise cause harm, but in this moment they struck a perfect give-and-take balance. Belle submerged again to pick up a stone and begin scrubbing herself. Not the same as soap, but better than the determined hands of those old women and Dathomir's intrusive eye on the proceedings.

She remembered another pair of eyes that were surely watching. There was a difference. If she asked him to leave or keep his gaze away, he would. Her faith in his respect was remarkable. It was not for that reason alone that her feelings were the opposite of those Dathomir inspired. Desire counted for something. Maybe it deserved to be ranked with trust and respect. If they both felt it.

More for suspense than modesty, Belle covered her breasts and looked over her shoulder. Rumplestiltskin had come closer, but only to a boulder near the bank that he leaned against. He faced her in profile, which allowed him to glance out the corner of his eye at her and quickly look away. He wasn't looking now. His head was bent and his thumbs turned together in circles.

"Would you like to come in?" she asked.

His head shot up. Mud-green eyes, huge and strange, stared with such shock Belle feared that she'd offended him.

"You don't have to," she clarified quickly. "I mean, if you want to, I'd like the company." This was not the time to pussy-foot. If she understood one thing about Rumplestiltskin, it was that he worked in literal terms. If she did not make her wants explicit, he'd dance his way out of meeting them.

"I don't want to interrupt your washing," he said.

How deft. He could have said 'bath' and avoided getting in altogether. Belle's heart quivered with hope.

"I'm quite satisfied." She let need slip into her voice. As her body turned toward him, her hands lowered just enough to show her breasts. To her relief, Rumple kept his gaze on her, and his mouth went a little slack. Her hands stayed high in case she would need them again. She hurried to the protruding ledge and rested them on it. The pose reminded her of the times she wished she'd been born a mermaid instead.

"I guess I'll never see it," she said sadly.

Rumplestiltskin's eyes couldn't stop shifting, and they couldn't look away from Belle. "See what?" His throat choked around the words.

Her face frowned. "Your magic tub."

He blinked. "My - ? Oh! Oh, that." He cleared his throat. "Right. A pity."

She hadn't meant to make him flustered - a happy accident. Belle's face lit up with mischief. Her hands pushed off the ledge and sent her back into the heart of the pool. "It can't be better than this. There's a lot more room."

The imp's eyes rolled, but quickly returned to her. "What difference does that make?"

He walked right into that. Even a virgin saw this one a mile away. "Oh, size makes all the difference. I thought you of all people knew that."

She wasn't sure how that comment did it. In what looked like a fit of anger, Rumplestiltskin frowned and started tearing off his clothes. Belle bit her lip, feeling like a child about to be chased by a boy she liked. His progress slowed when he attacked his boots, after his shirt was gone. She swam back toward him. If she could have seen herself from afar, she might have thought the ripples her hands made resembled wings.

"Can I help?" she asked comfortably. She laid her arms on the ledge and rested her head on them.

"I can manage," he said in a tight tone. He was halfway down the right boot. The left was still laced up.

"Why don't you use magic?" she asked in genuine curiosity.

"Because I don't feel like it!"

Belle raised her head with a skeptical frown. "Never thought I'd hear you say that. Why are you cross?"

Rumplestiltskin put down his foot with a hard stomp. He glared at her. "Because I'm a cranky old beast. What more reason do I need?"

With a huff she pushed off again. This time she turned away as she swam across the spring. Fine, let him be that way. Maybe he didn't want to come in. Maybe she'd put him in too awkward a position for him to handle. That was an aggravating idea that led to doubt about what he really wanted from her. Some days his desire stood clear (at times literally), then other days he all but built a moat to keep them apart. Was he afraid? Of what? Being hurt?

She slowed as she meditated on this. The Dark One, a creature capable of inspiring great fear, was afraid of being hurt. By her, perhaps, or by the situation. Afraid of letting his heart open up. A different desperation welled in Belle. She could be trusted. She would never hurt him, not even knowing what he was. She . . . he was her friend. Yes, in spite of their spats and their different ways of seeing things. In spite of his ancientness and her inexperienced youth. Despite his darkness - maybe partly because of his darkness - she cared for him. She feared for him more than feared him.

The water invited her back down a few times before she looked back to Rumplestiltskin. Now he was almost undressed, his second boot in the middle of being cast aside. As his hands went to the hooks on his trouser front, he looked up. Their gazes caught each other. Belle stayed crouched in the water, mostly hidden, waiting.

Rumplestiltskin angled away so she couldn't see his 'goods' when he pulled down his trousers and underwear together. It was fine for now; Belle had been curious about his backside, too. As she suspected, the cheeks' firm roundness remained enticing outside the leather. At last, after checking over his shoulder and seeing that Belle would not relent her stares, he pivoted around and immediately crouched to get in the water. Seeing his genitals had an unexpected impact. She wasn't aroused - more intrigued and perturbed, though not severely with the latter. She had only one memory as a frame of reference, which was barely a glimpse. It was easy to forget in her fantasies that men's privates had not only of the phallic part, but of the sac behind it, too, and all at once its blatant presence, so different from a woman's nether region, unsettled her. It wasn't aesthetically appealing, at least not compared to other features of his that drew her eyes and stoked her hunger. But her mild repulsion eased as he descended into the water like an oversized salamander. The moment the water received him she did feel another swell of attraction. He was a man, and the traits that proved that greatly allured her (genitals aside for now). Yet Belle was sure the attraction that flooded her was of the inhuman. The reptilian or amphibious grace with which he dropped into the spring called to something in her, a mysterious element that was perhaps not so human, either. Or maybe human beings have a greater attraction to animals and foreign creatures than they want to admit.

Or maybe Belle was uniquely perverse. She was rather all right with that.

The imp submerged all but the upper half of his head. He swam with his eyes and nose above the waterline. Belle blurted out a scared giggle. The pursuit was on. Warring hopes of being caught and eluding him intensified her excitement as she paddled back, watching him as intently as he watched her. She managed to put another foot between them when he went underwater. Oh no. Belle gulped air and hopped on her toes while watching the water for his shape. Damn. His dark coloring was perfect for camouflage.

That day Belle learned a rather terrifying lesson. Whether it was by virtue of being immortal, or because he could die only in certain ways, Rumplestiltskin could stay underwater for as long as he wanted. Seconds turned to minutes, and Belle's fear shifted from herself to him. Had he hit his head? She started calling his name and looking for him.

Now it seemed he'd disappeared altogether. Sour annoyance pushed her to look harder.

"Rumple! Rumple, if you're playing a trick - "

Claws grabbed her ankle. Well, fingers, but they might as well have been claws for the sheer terror they inspired. Belle screamed and tried to run. She toppled into the water. The hand released her ankle only to ensnare her waist with its partner. She thrashed even after breaking the surface with the hobgoblin.

"Oh, I could kill you!" She pushed her wet hair out of her face and slapped his shoulder.

"How convenient for you. Then you wouldn't have to go back to the dungeon. But then, you'd be stuck out in these mountains. Oh well. Worse ways to die."

His face contorted in that part childish, part maniacal grin that made Belle want to tug his hair. When she considered this, the way his wet hair clung together and how droplets dribbled down his face and dangled from the tip of his nose distracted her. His arms around her didn't help. Though she managed to uphold a look of displeasure, she pushed some stray stands sticking to his cheeks and forehead.

"I thought hot springs were supposed to be relaxing," she said.

"They can be, if you have nothing better to do." The mood in his eyes smoldered. "Now, you were saying something about size . . ."

She splashed him with the little space of water they had between them. From there it became a long romp of teasing and chasing. Belle wondered when she last had this much fun. Not since childhood, and maybe not since her mother died. Every time Rumple caught her, his grip remained loose enough that she could escape. In time she turned the tables by circling after him (which made her feel like a dog chasing its own tail) and tickling his feet. Once her hand actually grazed his rear, and on impulse she pinched him. That time when he caught her he held her tight, their chests crushed together. By his clenched teeth and squinting eyes, it was not easy to know if he was angry or excited.

Both was the answer. His breath blew harshly through his teeth, yet even as he squeezed her his thumbs caressed her soaked skin. Belle stared into his eyes and latched her arms around his shoulders, palms pressed against his shoulder blades.

It became clear that he wasn't angry at her. His jaw gradually slacked, and the fear and longing brought with them a weight that saddened Belle the longer she saw it. Tears touched her eyes. Eventually their foreheads and noses met. They tasted each other's breath. Belle tilted her mouth toward his.

"Please, Rumple." The skin of their lips brushed as she spoke. "Please kiss me."

Her mouth reached for his, but his lips might have closed first. Whatever the case, she still felt she was giving more, pressing hard into him when he remained gentle and quickly pulled back. Her disappointment had no time to settle. Rumplestiltskin's mouth came crashing back hard into hers.

She moaned into his mouth. They swallowed one's another air, lips, tongues. Belle couldn't imagine, and didn't want to imagine, kissing another man the way she kissed and was kissed by him. It didn't seem possible to share this intensity with more than one other person. She kept moaning and mentally begged him to show that he felt impassioned, too. His reluctant moans answered hers. So did that part of his anatomy she'd been unnerved by earlier. It intruded between their pressed abdomens.

Belle twitched at its presence and pulled out of the kiss. She panted while looking down. Rumple combed his fingers through her hair and looked down, too.

There it was, waiting for her, yet down below she tensed from its size and insistence. Pink inflamed her face as she turned back up to Rumplestiltskin. "Is it all right if we just . . . touch each other?"

The corner of his mouth flicked up. She loved how shy and hopeful he looked. "If that's what you want."

She leaned up and kissed his lips. "Oh, yes." She gulped and reminded herself to be clear. "I want you to show me all the pleasure we can give each other just with our hands."

And he did.

The excursion had been timed so that Belle would be back in the dungeon before her evening meal arrived. True to Rumplestiltskin's intentions, she returned mere seconds before metal clanged against metal and the guard went lumbering back down the corridor.

Rumplestiltskin, before reappearing, kicked the tray against the wall.

"But I'm hungry," Belle pointed out. She had every reason to be hungry. All she had experienced over the last few hours opened her mind and body to things her most vivid fantasies couldn't compete with. They had still not crossed the final physical threshold, though. But Belle was genuinely tired, and Rumplestiltskin looked equally so. "Look, tell me your story, and then we can make another deal about the food."

"What story?" he asked.

Belle tilted her head forward in warning. "Rumple. It would be very bad form for the deal-maker to squelch on a deal."

Something pained and unpleasant flitted across his face. He sighed and flicked a hand. "Very well. I'll make it brief."

Feeling just a little sorry for asking for the answer to his mysterious origins after their wearying, fantastic adventure, Belle pulled him toward the pallet and took him down with her. They curled up together, his arm around her waist, their heads facing each other. She occupied her fingers with the silk shirt collar.

"I already know you're from the Frontlands, and that you're around three hundred years old. If I remember right, that places you in your younger days during the first Ogres War. The one that was on-again, off-again, and they drafted children as young as fourteen. Am I right?"

His fingers rubbed circles into her side. "Yes. Read a lot on the subject?"

"Regional history. Part of my lessons." Belle shrugged. "So . . . were you a man? An ordinary man?"

After some hesitation, he said, "I said I'd tell you a story regarding my past, not answer a list of questions."

"Fine," said Belle. She scooted down so she could rest her head on his chest. "Tell me the story. And keep it true."

He huffed through his nose, but proceeded. "Once upon a time, many years ago, there lived a boy who lost his mother quite young and whose father was labeled the town coward."

"Why?" she asked.

"Which part?"

"Why was the father considered the town coward?"

"It doesn't matter. The point is that the boy lived in misery because his father shamed them."

"Very well." She shrugged and snuggled closer against him.

Rumplestiltskin went quiet for a little while, perhaps thinking how he should continue. Belle lightly poked his ribs. "No more stalling."

He squeezed her side and continued. "The boy didn't want to be like his father. He wanted to be brave. He wanted to do the right thing and serve in the Ogre Wars, despite being just a lad." He sucked in a long breath. "But his father feared for him. His father was afraid the boy would die. How could it be otherwise against ogres? So the father decided to do the only thing he knew: run. He woke his son in the middle of the night and urged him to run with him so he wouldn't go to war."

Belle nibbled on her lip as she listened. She worked on figuring out who Rumple was supposed to be, if he was either the father or the son. When he told the next part, dread filled her stomach. "On the road they were caught by soldiers who humiliated the boy's father and insisted that the boy be ready to be taken away to fight. On that same road they met a beggar who told them there was a way to save the boy. He told them of a creature called the Dark One who could solve their problem."

Why was he telling her about one of his deals? She was asking about his past. Impatience to hear the rest of the tale won out over any urge to criticize.

"There was a way the father could take control of the Dark One, and even kill him and take his power if he desired. The father, excited by this information, followed the beggar's instructions. On the fateful night before the boy's fourteenth birthday, his father planned to confront the Dark One. The boy was scared. He felt sure something would go wrong. But his father, tired of being called a coward, was ready to do anything to save his boy. He told him to go home so he could face the Dark One alone. The boy did. He waited all night for his father.

"Dawn came, but not his papa. Instead the soldiers who caught them on the run rode up to the little hut where the boy and his father lived. The lad, thinking his father dead, had no choice but to go with the soldiers. They led him outside. Then, suddenly, a hooded figure appeared. He killed one of the soldiers right on the spot. The captain recognized the Dark One right away. He knelt before him. The boy thought his fate sealed."

A shiver ran through Belle. Her heart ached for the poor father and boy. But her mind warned her that most stories with this kind of build-up had some fantastic or horrible twist at the end. She had an inkling of what it was and hoped she was wrong.

Rumplestiltskin's voice went softer. "But when the boy and the captain got a good look at the Dark One's face, they saw instead a familiar one. The boy said . . . he asked, 'Papa?'"

She turned her face into his chest. Then, it all fit in place. She gasped and looked up. "Oh, Rumple!" She felt tears again.

He did not look at her. His eyes were closed. "The boy did not go to war. His life was spared, at the cost of losing his father. The end."

She touched his face. Rumplestiltskin slowly opened his eyes. Fatigue brimmed in them. He looked as though he'd relived this story many times over.

"That can't be the end." She said so in a matter-of-fact way, but with a sad softness, too. "What happened to the boy?"

"He was lost."

Strange word choice. What did it mean? Not dead, she wanted to believe. But if it happened three hundred years ago, what was the alternative? "I'm so sorry."

It was quiet for a long while. Belle kept her head pillowed on Rumple's chest. At some point her eyes closed, and then they opened, and the light of day was almost gone. Rumplestiltskin was still under her. He had fallen asleep, just as she must have. Belle stole the moment to brush his soft hair off his face, leading her to caress his cheek without waking him.

He'd had a son. He had a family at a time when he wasn't like this - burdened with darkness. It had been foisted on him in a moment of blind desperation. As soon as she thought that, Belle stopped herself. It would not be right to think he'd had no choice. Everyone had a choice. Usually hard ones that demanded so much discernment from people. Her feelings balanced themselves on a knife's edge to avoid falling into either accusation or pardoning pity. Rumplestiltskin deserved neither. It was tragic - that much she could say. And it explained quite a lot. Not everything, but certainly the core of who he was. He had acted on love, which she would not fault him for. Unfortunately he had acted on fear, too. He was a fearful, loving man deep down, however much the darkness tried to twist him.

She stroked his cheek again and thought about kissing him.

The muffled march of footsteps stopped her. Fear clamped her throat shut for a few seconds. When she recovered, Belle grabbed and shook Rumple. "Wake up, wake up! Dathomir's coming!"

Rumplestiltskin stirred in time to hear the clicking of the key in the lock. He looked in Belle's eyes and vanished. No smoke. Maybe he had gone invisible. Wanting to know but with no time left, Belle jumped to her feet. There was no Dathomir. Just an armed bevy of guards approaching her fast.

"What's going on?" she demanded. The force in her voice surprised her.

"The king requests an audience with you," said a man who appeared to be the head of the group while two men grabbed her by the arms. Belle bit her lip and resisted fighting. The guards bore her away with speed, although they walked slow enough that she could keep with the pace.

An hour and a half of preparation finally ended with Belle being escorted, again by guards, to the royal dining hall. How ironic that after all these weeks, she had the honor of getting two baths in one day. The same women who washed her the first time returned for an encore, but the accommodations were more acceptable. She was given a tub in a private room to stand and sit in this time, rather than putting on a show in the middle of a cell. It was almost the treatment she received back home, if less sensitive than her own ladies' maids. Soap and perfumes were included. Belle soon understood why. When she emerged from the bath, another female servant had a dress waiting for her. She was given fresh undergarments, too, but she did not imagine it was truly for her own benefit. She tested the maids with questions about what was going on; their answers were mostly monosyllabic and vague. The most she managed to learn was that the king was inviting her to dinner and expected her to dress for the occasion. Whether she would have to return to her prison cell remained unknown.

The dress was a lovely if lavish article. Lily white and off the shoulder, its sleeves draped like pairs of giant flower petals to her elbow. Its most notable detail disturbed Belle. The silk fabric was embroidered with gold thread - thread she was very familiar with. Her stomach turned. Dathomir was dressing up his trophy. He was showing off to anyone who would be present at the meal the spoils he'd won in his plundering. Even worse, the maids sat her at a vanity so they could style her hair and weave more threads through it.

"No!" She wrestled out of their hands. "I don't want those in my hair."

"King's orders," stated the oldest-looking maid. "Sit still or we'll tie you down."

Belle stared at her lap so as not to see herself in the mirror. She didn't care if they made her up to be the fairest in the land. The whole thing sickened her. But she then had a turn of thought. Dathomir might be using the gold to show she was a prize to add to his collection - his own gold-spinner - but the gold had been crafted by Rumplestiltskin. His hands had touched the threads, or at least the straw that became the threads. In a way, dreadful though the situation was, he was with her, guarding her, and she had to draw strength from that. The gold was the work of both of them, she and Rumple, and the king could not take that away.

The maids pulled her to her feet when they finished, and she dared one short glimpse in the looking-glass. She was . . . well, she was beautiful. She had recovered a little of her lost weight thanks to the food Rumplestiltskin brought her. A touch of blush and eye paint brightened her face, and the gold contrasted well with her dark hair. The dress was lovely, too, which made her dislike it all the more.

The guards who came for her did not take her by the shoulders as usual. A part of her wanted to take advantage of this fact, to show Dathomir that she was not on board to play his games. If she ran, however, she might either be executed or thrown directly back into the cell. The second she did not mind if it meant being with Rumplestiltskin. Curiosity got to her in the end. Was Dathomir really putting her on display? Did he have something more in mind? She decided not to throw herself on the rack, if only to satisfy her need to see what was actually happening in the court. She was quiet and compliant, and the guards kept their hands away from her as they all descended the long staircases of Dathomir's castle together.

To her surprise, the king sat alone at a long table decorated with candelabras and large bowls of fruit, which mingled with the dishes of the meal. Two places were set. He did not seem at all disturbed by the lack of other guests. Belle's gut tensed at the rolls of gold thread stacked along the walls of the hall, higher than two men. A large fireplace on one side and torches fastened high above made the threads twinkle.

"You've come to join me at last, Lady Belle," said Dathomir before taking another bite of his leg of mutton. Belle had almost forgotten how large a man he was. Not corpulent, oh no. All muscle, thick like a tree trunk. He could have been part ogre for all anyone knew, although he had a handsomely square face. He was strong, surely athletic in endurance and strength. He had the sort of physique Gaston might have envied. She was already a small person by most people's standards. She felt like a mouse in the presence of the jungle's largest lion. Belle dug her fingers into the skirt of her new dress as she walked over to her designated seat and, with a footman's help, sat down.

"I imagine you're quite hungry." Dathomir's eyes glimmered like the gold.

She was. Thanks to Rumple's childish attitude, and then his heartbreaking story and their shared lethargy, they'd never reached that deal for her next meal. A server presented her with every dish, and for all her indignation at being dressed up and told nothing of why she was here, she could not help sampling almost everything. She'd missed these extensive courses of meat and vegetables and cheese and breads. The duck and pheasant made her mouth water. There were puddings and soups that teased her taste buds with their divine flavors. She couldn't always hide her relief with every bite.

"It's nice, isn't it? The cook will be pleased." Dathomir paused eating to observe her, which for better or worse could not curb her appetite. "So will the tailor when I tell him how well his handiwork turned out. You make it look very fetching."

Her stomach grumbled. She ate to ignore him.

"After we have eaten, we will take a walk through my garden. I hear you're fond of flowers."

Where had he heard that? It was true, but he must have guessed it. Belle dabbed her mouth with a napkin and mumbled, "As you wish," before trying the apple tarts.

Her stomach didn't take much time to balloon to full capacity. When it did, Belle followed Dathomir's lead to the garden. Blushing rose bushes lined the pathway until it stopped at a circle equipped with stone benches. Other flowers, some as small as a coin, some big enough to hide her face in, stood watch and polluted the air with their aroma. Belle let slip a longing sigh before she could stop herself.

"If I may be honest, I don't really care for plants." Dathomir sat on one cold bench. What a gift for tact he had. Belle scowled but said nothing. The king continued, "My head is too stuck in commerce to appreciate the beautiful, useless things in life. Except gold, of course. Thank goodness people put so much value in it."

"Plants are not useless," she countered, holding her position near a bush of hydrangeas. "They provide food to bees and birds."

He shrugged. "I suppose even the lowest creatures need sustenance."

Belle kept her eyes away. If she had to choose between standing in a garden with Dathomir and sitting in a dungeon with Rumplestiltskin, the choice was obvious.

"Forgive me," said Dathomir. That got Belle to look at him. "You've had a trying time."

"You killed my father." Her blue eyes burned. "You destroyed my home. Of course I've had a 'trying time'."

"I don't expect your forgiveness." He was so calm, so relaxed. She ought to slap him. "But might it be possible to make amends?"

Belle snickered. "How?"

"By offering you my hand in marriage."

Frost seemed to seize her joints. So it had come, after all - the day she had feared and made herself forget. Now she couldn't run from it. Well, she could try to literally run. She wouldn't get far.

"Why? Why would you want to marry me?"

The king's hair, shining and golden, waved a little as a feeble breeze passed through. "I would like to tell you a little story, Lady Belle. It might help you understand."

Belle squinted for half a second. She didn't like coincidences. They made her think she had missed some important connection. "I suppose."

"Then please, join me." He smiled and patted the empty spot on the bench.

There was little recourse at her disposal. Her gown swished against the cobblestones and slid with refined sleekness against the granite seat. Her rear placed as much distance between herself and Dathomir as possible.

"You think I'm a monster," said the king, unaffected as always. "Most people do, I'm sure. Of course I don't think so, but my opinion doesn't matter. Other royals see what I do and decry me as a ravenous conqueror, cold to the core." His eyes drifted away from Belle to the trees hanging low with leaves and blossoms. "How quickly they forget. How easily they dismiss their own cruelty. It's been a hard lesson to learn."

What was he saying? Belle turned a little more his way, even while she inwardly groaned. How was he a victim in this situation? She bit her lip to resist whatever sympathy he tried to stir in her heart. "What are you talking about?"

"You're too young to remember it. Most of what happened occurred before you were a twinkle in your father's eye. I was just a child myself, but I was old enough to remember everything. Back when the duchies were fighting for control - when there were no ogres to keep them occupied - my father ruled a kingdom in this area, the successor of a proud line. The duchies wanted to expand their borders, so they sought an alliance with my father. He was too trusting and generous for his own good. He promised to help them increase their resources, especially military goods. His advisers warned him that his new allies would use these tools against him when they had the chance. He rebuked them. 'How are we to have allies if we don't show some trust?' he'd said. 'Besides, our forces outmatch theirs. They are more likely to defend us in our time of need.' That was not the case."

Belle thought back to her history lessons. The more recent chronicles of her homeland and its neighbors, up to forty years ago, was a bit hard to determine. Facts contradicted each other about which duchies were pushing to extend their power. She knew Avonlea reached the top rung of the political hierarchy in the end, and had remained there since before her birth. "What was the kingdom?" she asked.

"Brackion. My father belonged to the Uther dynasty. The kingdom was conquered and divided among the duchies." A rough laugh rolled out of him. His grey eyes glided back to Belle. "Your grandfather got the worst of it. A spit of swampland mostly uninhabited during my father's reign. It was good for hunting, but not for agriculture and trade. Yet your father somehow made something of it."

"My mother helped," said Belle. This much she remembered. Her father would burst with pride as he told how they tilled the earth and reshaped the land to make it livable and arable. Her mother studied every text she could find and lent her wisdom to various projects. Their cooperative efforts led to courtship, and Belle's grandfather blessed the match and urged them to marry as soon as possible. It took many years. They wanted to wait for their efforts to bear fruit - rising trade, improving crops - before marrying. During the early years Maurice traveled to increase his knowledge of foreign ideas and techniques, and Belle's mother oversaw continuing progress at home. Her father returned with a head full of ideas, along with a ring rumored to have magic. He would laugh in his telling when he explained how he thought he would make a wish on the ring. He made one and returned home to find it was on its way to coming true. His lady was pregnant with their one and only daughter.

"You come from innovative stock," said Dathomir. "Despite what you may think, I don't want a simpleton for a wife. I want one who will help me rebuild the land that those backstabbing nobles stole from my family - the same ones who were as quick to swindle your grandfather. We could build a stronger, better kingdom. Provide a better life for your people."

Belle swallowed. Her nightmares involving the townspeople who fled for their lives from Dathomir's troops assaulted her memory. "Did you manage to spare any of my people? How am I to believe anything you say? I deserve some proof."

"Ah." Dathomir turned more toward her, but he respected the space between them. "Proof is a luxury I cannot provide you right now. You see, those of your people who now live under my rule believe you dead. They must think so until you become my wife. If they knew you were alive but imprisoned, there would be unrest. Rebellions, bloodshed. I know you wouldn't want any more of that on your head."

The bastard had a sound aim. Belle felt like a dart board being pierced in the most valuable spots. She folded her hands and thought of Rumplestiltskin. She thought of the masks he used to hide his feelings when making deals. She could never possess his dramatic techniques, but there were a few things she could borrow as armor. Belle faced Dathomir and smiled. "What will you do if I refuse? Kill me?"

The king smirked. "Why would I kill you, when you spin such lovely thread?"

"Would I keep spinning gold even as your queen?"

"Now and then to keep the economy strong."

"So it is either support the kingdom from a literal prison, or from a figurative one."

"Now, now." Dathomir leaned toward her. "You would have a little more say in things on a throne. So long as you swear to serve as my wife, you shall have your input in matters of state. That is what you were groomed for, is it not? Why waste yourself in a cell and neglect your people?"

It was terrible how appealing this sounded. It was horrendous how truthful he sounded. She wanted to believe that cruel and unloving as he was, Dathomir did want the best for the kingdom and its people. Was there a speck of good underneath? Wearing a intrigued expression, she said, "You didn't finish your story."

Dathomir needed a moment to understand what she meant. "Oh. You're right. You want to know what happened after the nobles turned on us."

She nodded.

A smile more disturbing than his smirks filled his face, accompanied by a moist shine in his eyes. His voice grew tender.

"They captured the entire royal family, myself included. They threw us into cells. I was just a boy, but I had a private cell like anyone else. I lived on bread and disgusting soup. Months went by like this, I knowing nothing of what was happening outside, before a former servant who had escaped slipped into the castle to rescue me. He told me everyone else in my family had been executed. My father, my mother. My sister and brothers. He had arrived just in time, as my execution was to be the next day. I was the youngest, therefore the last to die. The servant and I barely escaped. We fled to a kingdom that had been sympathetic to mine. I lived for many years as a peasant, laboring and sweating like I was nothing. I saw my chance for redemption when I joined the army and in time won the favor of the king, who when he learned my story afforded me land to rule as a lord. From there I did everything in my power to build a new kingdom, naming it after my family, the Uthers."

The king laid a large hand on Belle's. She flinched, but his story held her captive and she did not move away. "I learned an excruciating lesson, Lady Belle. Power is often the difference between life and death, honor and shame. The nobles of your land took my family's power and honor, so now I have taken it back. Do you understand?"

The garden sat in unhealthy silence. There should have been birds and crickets in the settling dusk. There was only the occasional breeze that made the leaves shudder and raised goosebumps on Belle's skin.

"Yes," Belle whispered. Her eyes focused steadily on him. She let his fierce hand hold hers. "I understand."

Dathomir scooped up her hand and kissed her middle knuckle. "We have an accord, then?"

Her pulse echoed in her ears for the seconds between his question and her reply. "I . . . I must think on it. You have made a persuasive offer. Still, as a lady, I beg to be allowed a period of discernment."

The king's eyes were unreadable even as he smiled softly. "Of course. I'll give you three days."

"A week, your majesty, if I may." Belle swallowed as quietly as possible.

"I must demand three days, Lady Belle. Only because I do not like to wait too long. It's one of my many flaws." The chuckle he gave was so controlled and chilling, yet so relaxed - how could it be human?

Even more unsettling was the sudden appearance of a guard on the other side of the cobblestone circle. Belle quickly understood her time in the fresh air was up. "Very well. Three days." In this case she really had no choice, and her gut sank at the reality.

"Keep the dress," said Dathomir. He patted her hand as the guard approached to take her back to the cell. "As a token of my goodwill."

For most of the walk down the increasingly cold stairs, Belle wrestled with holding up the dress while ignoring its softness and significance, especially the gold threads she'd helped Rumple roll into hundreds of coils over the last month. Many times that she felt she might actually become sick to her stomach. She shouldn't have let herself eat so much food.